Women should be allowed to serve aboard Americas fleet of nuclear submarines, the nation's top military officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, quietly has told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
If the Navy agrees to it, this would be a huge policy change and potentially a significant expansion of career opportunities for female officers and sailors.
Women have been barred by Navy policy from submarines, even as the sea service began 15 years ago to integrate females into other seagoing combat roles including aboard surface warships and in fighter jets.
Mullen, former chief of naval operations and a career surface warfare officer, made his position on submarines known in written responses to questions from the committee to prepare for Mullen's confirmation hearing to serve a second two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
"As an advocate for improving the diversity of our force, I believe we should continue to broaden opportunities for women. One policy I would like to see changed is the one barring their service aboard submarines," Mullen told senators.
Opponents of lifting the ban have argued for decades that space is at a premium on submarines. To accommodate privacy needs of females, including separate berthing and "heads" or toilet/shower facilities, would be "prohibitively expensive," Navy has argued. Watch duty, bunk management, extra supplies and incidents of fraternization and harassment would complicate submarine life, according to one study done for the Navy in 1994.
No senator actually raised the female submariner issue with Mullen during his Sept. 15 confirmation hearing. The focus was Afghanistan and Iraq. And Navy officials had no immediate comment on Mullen's position.
Mullen's spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said the chairman did tell Adm. Gary Roughead, current chief of naval operations, what position Mullen was going to take on women submariners in comments back to committee.
Mullen had focused some attention on this issue in the past, Kirby explained. While serving as CNO, Mullen had asked Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, and other submarine community leaders to "take a look" at ending the ban on women in the "silent service." That review was still underway when Mullen stepped down in 2007 to become chairman and, as such, senior military adviser to the president.
Allowing women on submarines, Kirby said, "was something he always had in his mind and still believes in."
But Mullen doesn't intend to hold "meetings or discussions with the Navy on this," Kirby added. "As a former CNO, he understands the Title 10 responsibilities that the CNO has. I don't think he is keen to be too deeply involved in what is clearly the Navy's responsibility to manage the force."
As to why Mullen even raised the issue, Kirby said, "He was answering a question honestly about women in combat, and that's how he really feels."
Among the dozens of written questions posed to Mullen was this: "Does the Department of Defense have sufficient flexibility under current law to make changes to assignment policy for women when needed?"
Mullen answered that the department has all the flexibility it needs. But he referenced military women's "tremendous contributions to our national defense. They are an integral part of the force and are proven performers in the operational environment and under fire."
He noted too that DoD policies "fully recognize that women are assigned to units and positions that are not immune from the threats present in a combat environment. In fact, women are assigned to units and positions that may necessitate combat actions - actions for which they are fully trained and prepared to respond and to succeed."
More than 100 U.S. service women have been killed since 2001 while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait.
One Capitol Hill source said he was told by a submarine community officer that the Navy had readied plans at one point to allow women to serve aboard Ohio-class strategic missile submarines. Kirby was asked if Mullen had these larger boats, nicknamed "boomers," in mind for gender integration as opposed to the smaller attack submarines.
"I dont believe he's made that distinction in his mind yet," Kirby said.
The Navy was under enormous pressure a decade ago from the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) to open the submarine community to women. DACOWITS at the time was an influential 34-member advisory group to the secretary of defense.
In 1999, the Navy allowed several members of this group aboard different classes of submarines while underway. For a few days they lived aboard. But they returned to shore unconvinced that the gender ban was appropriate. That fall DACOWITS unanimously recommended that the Navy secretary and the CNO "commit to the integration of women in the submarine community and develop an implementation plan."
Given that submarines are built to last 40 years, the group suggested it was unrealistic to assume women wouldn't serve aboard these platforms at some point. So, long term, the group wanted new Virginia-class attack submarines to be redesigned to accommodate mixed crews. Short term, DACOWITS wanted women assigned soon to the larger missile boats.
If there were plans drafted to begin gender integration, they were shelved after the Bush administration arrived in 2001. With the Pentagon under new management, the number of DACOWITS members was cut to 15, their charter was watered down and their influence waned. Gender integration on submarines fell from the group's agenda by April 2001.
With a single sentence in a 72-page packet returned to senators, Mullen has restored and elevated the issue to new heights.
-- Tom Philpott