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Groton — The leader of Submarine Group Two told a group of military personnel, retirees and Electric Boat employees Friday that he is prioritizing work essential to ensuring submarines are ready to deploy while the government is shut down.
Five submarines in the group he oversees are deployed today: the USS Helena, USS Dallas, USS Scranton, USS Missouri and USS Virginia, Rear Adm. Kenneth M. Perry said at the Naval Submarine League Nautilus Chapter luncheon Friday.
Perry said afterward in an interview that the group has felt the impacts this week of the government shutdown, mainly due to the furloughs of federal employees. About 750 Defense Department civilians who work at the Naval Submarine Base and 217 civilians who inspect EB's work on submarines at the Supervisor of Shipbuilding, Conversion and Repair (SUPSHIP) office were furloughed Tuesday.
The heads of the commands on the base are talking regularly about how to "keep the main thing, the main thing" — deploying combat-ready submarines on time, Perry said.
That common purpose, he said, has "been an enabler in our ability to deal with this situation."
Military personnel were not transferring on time because civilians in the office that process those orders were furloughed, so some of those furloughed employees were brought back to work, Perry said. Other offices are open for limited hours, and service members are performing additional duties, he added.
The SUPSHIP office cannot certify EB's work on submarines currently under construction or on those in the shipyard for maintenance, which could eventually delay those submarines from returning to the fleet.
"The civilian component of the Navy team is essential," Perry said.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution to extend the current spending rates for six weeks but also to delay the Affordable Care Act, which Senate leaders said they would not do. The shutdown began Tuesday.
"We have got some challenges to work through, of course, right now — these past few days in particular," Perry said. "But I remain committed, and Submarine Group Two remains committed, to maintaining the readiness of the ships that are on deployment, preparing the ships fully for deployment and applying those resources in that priority manner."
But Perry spent most of his time with his audience talking about the feats of the submarines in the group, particularly their ability to shift course and respond to new missions quickly, and about his other role as head of a 60-person task force that will figure out how to bring enlisted women aboard submarines.
Last year, one submarine was getting ready to go to the U.S. Central Command but was sent to the Mediterranean instead because of the events in Libya. Next, the commanding officer was told to travel 900 miles overnight to get closer to Syria, and the submarine provided critical information from that region, Perry said.
Not all elements of the military are that agile, Perry said, and that agility has helped earn the submarine force strong support in Congress.
Perry asked for the group's support for the plan to bring enlisted women aboard submarines. Soon the plan will be made public, and the Navy wants to get more women interested in joining the submarine force.
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. The Navy announced in January that female officers will begin reporting to attack submarines in fiscal year 2015, and, as the next step, enlisted women will be considered for sub duty.
Forty female officers are currently serving on 12 submarine crews, Perry said. The biggest challenge the task force faces, he added, is figuring out how women can have a successful career in the submarine force — which often entails going to sea for long periods of time — and a family as well.
The standards people must meet to be a submariner will continue to be gender-neutral, Perry said, but it may not be wise not to acknowledge that men and women are different and the life/work balance is fundamentally different for a woman than it is for a man.
Perry was supposed to travel next week for his work on the task force, but that trip was canceled because travel has been severely restricted during the shutdown.
Most of the questions from the audience were about the task force and about the Navy's decision to eliminate his job.
Perry, who is responsible for all of the attack submarines on the East Coast, likely will be the last Submarine Group Two commander as the Navy cuts, consolidates or reduces in rank rear admiral and vice admiral positions.
The submarine force is preparing a transition plan, Perry said, and Groton's standing as the Submarine Capital of the World and the center of excellence for the force will not change.
Perry stressed that the five submarines currently deployed are doing great work.
"We're deployed, we're forward, we're ready," he said. "… Our mission focus and our priorities have not changed."