Women to serve on Virginia-class subs, Navy announces

Women can now serve on the front lines and on the nation's newest attack submarines.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Thursday he is lifting the ban on female service members in combat roles. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus then announced women will be able to serve on Virginia-class submarines.

The policy change for the submarine force opens up one of the few areas not available to women, Mabus said.

Newly commissioned female officers have been selected, Mabus said, and they will begin reporting to attack submarines in fiscal year 2015. As the next step, enlisted women will soon be considered for sub duty, he added.

"The Navy has a long history of inclusion and integration, and I am proud we have achieved another important milestone during my tenure as secretary," he said.

The Navy lifted its ban on women serving aboard submarines in 2010 and started assigning female officers first to the larger, ballistic-missile and guided-missile submarines. Mabus had said then that women would serve on the smaller Virginia-class submarines because there should be no limits on their Navy careers.

The women who have been selected will start training this year. The training includes the 10-week officer basic course in Groton.

"Their skill and dedication will be as important on the Virginia-class submarines as in combat on the ground, where women have served courageously and effectively," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "I look forward to being at ceremonies in southeastern Connecticut where we'll see more women in the ranks when the submarines arrive and depart."

The Naval Submarine Base in Groton is the homeport to attack submarines only.

When Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, the chief of naval operations, visited Groton last summer, he said the Navy's plans to continue bringing women aboard submarines were going very well so far and "now we're ready to move to the Virginia class."

"I have complete confidence that the Navy will make this work and it will make for a stronger force," U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Thursday. "It's clear that women strengthen the military with their patriotism, their intelligence and their physical capabilities."

Panetta's decision to eliminate the 1994 rule that bans women from serving in combat means that many other military jobs are now open to women. He said the goal is "to ensure that the mission is met with the best-qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender."

Women make up 15 percent, or about 202,000, of the U.S. military's force of 1.4 million active personnel. In the past decade, more than 280,000 women have deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Women who serve in the Connecticut National Guard will be able to one day join the state's infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment in New Haven.

"The contributions of female members of the armed forces are well-known and documented," said Maj. Gen. Thaddeus J. Martin, commander of the Connecticut National Guard. "We have every confidence in their ability to perform assigned duties and responsibilities, whether in combat units and roles or in garrison support activities."

Connecticut Guard units are categorized as either combat, combat support or combat service support. The 102nd Infantry is the only unit considered combat, said Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard.

Whitford said he was waiting for more details from the defense department on when the make-up of the battalion could change. The Pentagon is planning a phased-in approach that will take three years to fully implement.

The unit of 600 men deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and is not scheduled for another deployment, Whitford said.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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