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CMR Sitrep
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Sophistry about Submarines

In a July 22, 2009 article, Stars & Stripes newspaper reported some alarming attitudes and perspectives on the issue of women on submarines. (Thanks to the USNA At-Large network for bringing it to our attention):

Breaking into the Underwater Boys' Club - Sailor One of 12 Women to be Submarine-Qualified

The unserious headline and the tone of some of the people interviewed is disappointing. The Silent Service is not a "boys' club," and this is a serious matter.

The article quotes Lt. Cmdr. Marilisa Elrod, a doctor and undersea medical officer who likes to wear her husband's dolphins because she is qualified to ride on the submarines. Dr. Elrod points to countries such as Australia, Canada, Spain, and Norway as examples that justify women being on submarines. She appears unaware of obvious realities that set the American submarine service apart from those of all other countries she mentioned. None of those countries deploy subs for months at a time in oceans worldwide.

And her cavalier attitude toward quality of life problems that would ensue if subs were gender-integrated is not a credit to her as a naval officer. (The article is unclear whether she shares a stateroom with a male officer when she rides on a submarine or whether he is displaced and sent to hot-rack with enlisted sailors.)

Lt. Cmdr. Elrod appears appallingly ignorant of biological realities that pose a real threat to all crew members, and an unborn child, if a pregnancy is discovered while on an undersea mission. The same comments apply to Petty Officer Jim Grisham, who equated the issue of women on submarines with "homosexuals in small units." That's a pretty ridiculous analysis, but as a medical doctor, Cmdr. Elrod should understand certain realities better than he.

In addition to our own Navy in recent years, Britain and Canada have resisted pressures to put women on submarines because of health risks associated with the constantly-recycled atmosphere that is safe for adults but a likely cause of birth defects in the earliest weeks of fetal development. Significant risks of ectopic pregnancy, including the possibility of death, would create the need for immediate evacuations. It is extremely hazardous to dangle a rescue basket from a helicopter in the middle of the ocean.

A comment on this story posted by a member of the USNA At-Large network provided a vivid example of real-world risks:

"A point of interest. As a station HH-46 helo pilot at Rota Spain circa 1980, I was awakened by the shore patrol at my home in the wee hours of the morning. I had standby SAR duty and was told to report to air ops immediately for an emergency medivac mission. Upon arriving at air ops I was told that I needed to medivac a sailor with severe abdominal pain off a ship operating in the western Med. Plotting the coordinates of the ship I recommended that the ship close to at least within 100 nautical miles off the eastern shore of Spain, as the HH-46 only had a round trip range of about 250 nautical miles. The ship had a deck capable of landing an HH-46 but no refueling capability. Assembling my crew including a corpsman, we launched for the eastern shore to refuel and await the estimated time of arrival of the ship at the designated coordinates. Despite poor visual conditions we located the ship and made the medivac of a young female sailor back to Rota via refueling on the eastern shore. We were met at Rota by an ambulance who took her to the hospital. The entire evolution took about 10 hours. Later that evening I went to the hospital to check on the young sailor. The diagnosis - PMS." (Posted by Peter Zuidema)

Such operations would put everyone in peril and compromise long-term stealth deployments that are fundamentally different from surface ship missions.

The Submarine Group spokesman quoted by Stars & Stripes, Lt. Cmdr. Greg Kuntz, needs to get his priorities straight and think this through with logic uncolored by political correctness. Take the question of "how" to accommodate female sailors on submarines, which is huge in itself. As explained in the SAIC Report posted below, even if the Navy could justify the enormous cost, cramped submarines cannot be "stretched" like Town Car limousines to accommodate gender-separated officers and enlisted sailors.

Career paths must include deployments on all subs, not larger, nuclear-powered boomers only. Concerns about sexual privacy in berthing areas well below the minimum habitability standards of surface ships cannot be ignored. It is difficult enough to serve in any type of submarine.

The more important question is "why." What justification is there for creating irresolvable operational hazards in undersea missions, while introducing social issues and tensions that could have a serious negative effect on morale, recruiting, retention, and readiness in the Silent Service?

A law exists that requires official advance notice to Congress before DoD money is spent to gender-integrate submarines. The Navy may be skirting that law, and Congress should hold the Navy accountable. If there is a need for more male doctors and sailors for submarines, more male doctors and sailors should be recruited and trained. Unneeded gender quotas at the US Naval Academy create pressures to gender integrate submarines, despite the potential health risks to women, which usually are not discussed, plus the negative impact on missions and crews as a whole.

Rather than straining to accommodate politically-correct social agendas, the US Navy should concentrate on maintaining and strengthening policies and standards that best meet the mission requirements of the Submarine Service and its sailors.

The following links provide further information on the issue:

The SAIC report on the subject, "Submarine Assignment Policy Assessment," considered to be definitive:

The medical aspects of the issue are discussed in this letter to Congress from retired Rear Adm. Hugh Scott, USN, an expert in undersea medicine:

Finally, the concerns expressed to the former DACOWITS (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services) some time ago remain equally true today:

The undersea environment in which our submariners live and defend America is as dangerous as outer space. There is no compelling reason for social experiments that make our sailors' lives more difficult and more dangerous.
posted by CMR Editor @ 8/20/2009 11:45:00 AM

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