Navy Boosts Number of Women on Submarines

Lt. Cmdr. Amber Cowan, assigned to the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Texas (SSN 775) greets her husband on the submarine pier in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Feb. 14, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael H. Lee)
Lt. Cmdr. Amber Cowan, assigned to the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Texas (SSN 775) greets her husband on the submarine pier in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Feb. 14, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael H. Lee)

Eight years after the Navy announced a policy change allowing women to serve on submarines, there are 93 women aboard Pacific Fleet vessels, including nine officers on two Virginia-class submarines at Pearl Harbor, the undersea service said.

"The submarine force's women integration efforts in the Pacific to date have gone smoothly," said Cmdr. Corey Barker, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Force. "Looking forward, the intent is to maintain a deliberate process while expanding officer and enlisted integration into the submarine force."

The longer-term Navy goal is to have women make up 20 percent of submarine crews.

Six females are part of the crew of more than 130 on the USS Texas at Pearl Harbor, including the head of the engineering department. Three junior officers are in the engineering department, and a junior officer is in the weapons department.

The USS Mississippi has three women aboard, including a department head who is the navigation operations officer. In late 2015 two women became the first to be assigned to submarine duty in Hawaii on that same vessel.

On the bigger guided missile sub USS Michigan out of Washington state, which has two crews that rotate duties, four female officers and 29 enlisted women are now on the "blue" crew, and six female officers and 29 enlisted are on the "gold" crew, the Navy said.

The Navy in March celebrated Women's History Month, noting that women were part of the sea service as nurses dating back to the 1800s. It would take many more years to get aboard combat ships and submarines.

Women arrived on auxiliary ships beginning in 1978 and on combatant ships in 1994. In 2016 the Defense Department said it was opening all occupations to women.

Women just want to be "submariners," not "female submariners," The Associated Press said in a March story.

"That'll be a great day when it's not so new that everyone wants to talk about it," Suraya Mattocks, who was on the guided missile sub USS Michigan out of Washington state, said in what the AP called a "rare interview."

"Females on my crew, they really and truly just want to be seen as submariners. That's it," said the 34-year-old petty officer first class, who was planning to retire from the Navy.

Colorado Springs, Colo., native Lt. Cmdr. Amber Cowan returned to Pearl Harbor in February on the USS Texas after the sub completed a six-month Western Pacific deployment, making port calls in Guam and Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan. In 2012 Cowan received her submarine "dolphins" as part of a different vessel.

Cowan was required to qualify as officer of the deck and engineering officer of the watch, perform damage control functions and demonstrate leadership qualities, the Navy said in late 2012.

Pearl Harbor has six newer Virginia-class subs and about a dozen older Los Angeles-class vessels -- the greatest concentration of submarines in the Pacific. The current integration plan calls for three to five female officers per Virginia-class crew, and eventually 22 female enlisted per crew, the submarine force's Barker said.

Navy plans seek enlisted women on a future Virginia-class submarine in Hawaii in 2024. Space is tight on any submarine, and especially so on the smaller 360-foot Los Angeles subs. The Navy does not have women on that sub type, which is being retired in favor of the newer Virginias.

Hawaii is the only home port in the Pacific for Virginia-class subs, which are 377 feet long and have berthing that is modular with three officers per stateroom, making it easier to accommodate women. A timeshare sign is used for bathrooms.

In the Pacific, women also are aboard the biggest submarines in the Navy: 560-foot ballistic missile subs, and former ballistic missile "boomers" that were converted to carry commandos and launch up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, all out of Washington state.

Construction of some future Virginia-class and other submarines "will be designed to fully support an integrated crew to include berthing spaces," the sub force's Barker said.

Privacy -- or lack thereof -- is a challenge on any submarine, and more so on the cramped Virginia subs. The USS Missouri, which arrived in Hawaii in January, spent 163 of 181 days on a past deployment underwater, news organization CNN said in a story in October.

The submarines have about 94 beds for 130 to 135 crew, necessitating what's known as "hot-racking" or "hot-bunking" -- the sharing of beds on different shifts, CNN said.

Working out is one way to pass free time. "Sometimes you go find a quiet corner and read a book" or watch a movie in the crew's small mess area, a sailor told CNN. A reconfigurable torpedo room can accommodate exercise equipment or extra berthing.

Qualification in submarines, an all-volunteer force, was a "personal achievement," Cowan said in a 2012 Navy release. "Ultimately, it is a monumental mark of the confidence my command and crew has in me. And earning that respect and acceptance is a feeling that I will hold with me for my entire life."

This article is written by William Cole from The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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