Navy Submarine Force Moves Closer Towards Gender Equity

On Behalf of | August 13, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Slowly, quietly, the Navy’s silent service is becoming a gender-equal community.

During the week of June 14, 2014, the Navy submitted to Congress its plan to integrate enlisted women into the submarine force – often referred to as the “silent service.”  The plan represents the next important step in a long-overdue transition, and it will open pathways to success historically denied women seeking to join the submarine force’s “brotherhood.”  At the same time, from the Navy’s perspective, the integration of women will remove a nonsensical barrier to staffing our nation’s submarine force with the most talented and capable sailors.

After a successful integration of female officers into the larger of its two kinds of submarine (boats colloquially referred to as “boomers”), the Navy has announced that in 2016 it will also begin integrating female enlisted sailors into those boats, with a goal of having women make up 20 percent of the enlisted crews by 2020.  Increasing the number of women on boomers is vital not only because it opens up more spots for women, but also because as the number of women on the boomers increases, the propensity to view them as mere tokens, and to disproportionately scrutinize their successes and failures, will certainly decrease.

Just as importantly as full integration of boomer submarines, the first women officers are slated to join the crews of the Navy’s smaller “fast attack” submarines in early 2015.  Allowing female submariners to serve on fast attack subs is essential to their advancement and success in the silent service.  As Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network, rightly noted, “Getting women on the attack boats . . . that’s the way this has to go.  Because in all the key command and staff billets, the Navy looks for combatant experience.”

For those who have not served in the Navy, here is some context that may help underscore the truth of Mr. Jacob’s observation.  The Navy’s submarine force consists of two kinds of boats, each serving a different mission.  The first kind of submarine, and the biggest, is the “boomer.”  These are the submarines that have had female officers since 2011.  Boomers are about 560 feet long (almost the length of two football fields) and 42 feet wide.  Their mission is to roam the oceans, hidden and undetected, carrying long-range nuclear warhead missiles.  They remain submerged for extended periods, avoiding contact with other ships and submarines.  Thus hidden, they serve as a powerful nuclear deterrent because our enemies do not know where they are but do know that they are out there, somewhere, always capable of striking.

The second kind of submarine the Navy operates is known as the “fast attack.”  These are the submarines that will see their first female officers in early 2015.  Fast attack submarines are smaller than boomers, only 362 feet long (slightly longer than one football field) and 32 feet wide.  Fast attacks are designed to pursue and attack enemy submarines and surface ships using torpedoes.  They also carry cruise missiles with conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) warheads capable of attacking enemy shore facilities; they can be used to conduct intelligence and reconnaissance missions; and they are capable of supporting special warfare operations (i.e., putting SEALS in the water).  (For more fun submarine facts, see this Navy page.)

Fast attacks, for reasons that should be obvious, see much more action than boomers.  (Okay, if it is not obvious, let me put it to you this way: if the boomers see action, you should head to your nearest fallout shelter.)

The distinctions in size and mission are relevant to what the Navy has done—and what it must continue to do—to integrate the silent service.  Nearly 50 women have served on boomers to date.  The Navy explained that women could not begin serving on fast attacks right away because the cost of retrofitting sleeping and bathroom facilities on the smaller boats was cost-prohibitive.  The larger boomers, on the other hand, did not need to be retrofitted in order to accommodate women.  Although the boomers’ larger size made their integration more practicable, the different missions served by the two kinds of submarines makes integration of fast attacks essential to women’s ability to succeed in the submarine force.

As Mr. Mr. Jacob observed, that the Navy looks for combat experience when making promotion decisions.  In the submarine force, combat experience comes from serving on fast attacks (boomers, as noted above, don’t tend to see much action).  And without the experience that can only be obtained on fast attacks, women cannot possibly compete for promotions on equal footing with men.  Expecting female submariners who are only allowed to serve on boomers to compete for promotions against men who have served on both kinds of submarine is like asking a division one basketball player who is only allowed to play defense to compete for an NBA draft spot against players who are allowed to play on both ends of the court.  No matter how many shots he blocks, he doesn’t stand a chance of being drafted before a player who is just as good on defense and has shown that he can score.

I have no doubt that the continued integration of boomers, and the soon-to-begin integration of fast attacks, will be successful.  Contrary to the dire predictions of plummeting morale and out of control fraternization that greeted early discussions of integrating the submarine force, so far the integration has been smooth and mostly uneventful.  One of the first female officers to join a boomer crew rather boringly described her working environment as “very professional.”

I suppose naysayers expected less of the men charged with driving nuclear-powered submarines carrying missiles armed with nuclear warheads.   Or perhaps they expected less of those young men’s leaders.  For my part, I am not surprised that our sailors have handled the integration of our submarine force with professionalism, and I am confident in their ability to see it through.  The time has come.