Navy preparing for women submariners

Groton - The commander of the Navy's Submarine Force recently created a task force to come up with a plan to integrate women into submarine crews, anticipating that the current ban will soon be lifted.

In an interview with The Day on Friday, Vice Adm. John J. Donnelly said only women officers would initially serve on submarines. Donnelly was in Groton for a Submarine Group Two change-of-command ceremony.

Women from this year's classes at the U.S. Naval Academy and Reserve Officers Training Corps would report for submarine duty in late 2011 after receiving training at nuclear-power and submarine schools.

Donnelly said he doesn't see any major hurdles to making the transition. "I think it'll be fine," he said. "We're doing detailed planning."

Rear Adm. Barry L. Bruner heads up the new task force, which has been charged with the planning and figuring out which ships and crews the first women will go to.

Bruner commands Submarine Group 10, which includes the ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. Women would first start serving on the larger ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines, since they can accommodate coed quarters more easily than the smaller fast-attack submarines.

The task force membership includes high-ranking female officers and women who have commanded surface ships. The Navy began allowing women to serve in combat positions in 1993.

"Many of those first women on ships are still serving in the Navy and we're using them as advisers to ensure that the Submarine Force makes this transition smoothly," Donnelly said.

The task force, created more than a month ago, is still getting organized and has not yet made any recommendations, Donnelly said. He cautioned that the planning is tentative because Congress is considering the policy change and could still act to prevent it.

Donnelly said he believes it's time to allow women to serve on submarines. "We'll increase the talent pool that we draw from," he said. "I've been the CO (commanding officer) of a submarine tender with women on board and they are very good sailors, so it'll enhance our professionalism."

The USS Hartford came under criticism for "lax professional standards" after an investigation found that the Hartford's collision with a Navy surface ship last March was preventable and accused crew members onboard the submarine of falling asleep on the job, spending too much time away from their stations and chatting informally while working.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress last week that the Navy plans to allow women to serve on submarines. Congress has a month to weigh in.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead were asked about the policy change at hearings on the Navy budget request before the House and Senate Armed Services committees this week.

Mabus said the ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines would not require any structural modifications to accommodate women officers. He said the Navy would make sure to put enough women on each submarine so they are not too small a group and would reach out to families to address any concerns.

"We think this is a great idea, and that it will be done very smoothly and very professionally," Mabus said, according to a transcript from Thursday's SASC hearing. "And that it will enhance our war-fighting capabilities."

"We have a very good plan," Roughead added. "We have great interest. We're ready to go."

Their optimism was shared by retired Navy Capt. Ronald S. Steed, who served as commodore of Submarine Squadron 2 at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton from 2005 to 2007.

"I think the women who come into the Submarine Force will be great thinkers and doers and they'll fit right into the culture," Steed said in an interview. "After awhile we'll stop thinking about them as being female and start thinking of them as great operators."

All-male crews bring a male perspective to problem-solving and women crew members will approach problems differently, which will make the submarine safer, Steed said.

"They're going to have a fresh perspective to combat that we're not considering now," he said. "That will make us fight better, and that's what we're out there to do."

The benefits of women on submarines far outweigh any concerns, Steed said. A decade from now, he said, "we'll look back and wonder what the fuss was about."

j.grogan@theday.com

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