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The Navy should proceed slowly with its plan to begin integrating women into the submarine service. Women make up 14 percent of the Navy's 370,000 personnel. It's only right to provide them the opportunity, if they can meet the qualifications, to serve their country where they best see fit - including on submarines.
Many of the concerns about allowing women aboard submarines - lack of privacy, fears of fraternization, disrupting crew morale and camaraderie - are the same heard when the Navy first allowed women on support ships in 1978 and on combat ships in 1994. Most apt to the discussion about allowing women on submarines is the fact the Navy now has gender-integrated crews on ships once considered too small for mixed crews, such as mine hunters.
Recognizing that it is time for a change does not mean ignoring the significant challenges presented by introducing women into the nation's submarine service or the anxiety it will create both for crews and for their spouses back home. Serving on a submarine is a unique form of service; crew members function in the tightest of quarters and remain submerged for weeks at a time.
This is why the Navy's stated approach to proceed in steps makes sense. Because of the length of training, Navy officials expect it will be more than a year before the first women are ready for submarine service. The Navy can use this time to listen to concerns and better prepare for gender integration.
The submarines expected to first carry women would be the largest ones - the missile-equipped Tridents. They provide the best opportunity to modify crew space to accommodate both genders. And the living space, while cramped by any normal standards, is spacious when compared to attack submarines.
Before widely dispersing women on submarines, the Navy should evaluate a few test cases and implement lessons learned as it moves toward wider integration. Those lessons can also help guide modifications in the construction of new Virginia-class submarines.
In addition to the fairness of providing women the same opportunities as their male counterparts, there are practical reasons for the change. It is an ongoing challenge for the Navy to recruit enough men to serve aboard submarines. Because of the unique challenges of submarine service, submariners face more rigorous intellectual and psychological standards. Permitting women would significantly expand the pool of potential recruits.
It is time for another gender barrier to fall.