Implementing Women On Subs

April 2010


Even Drudge now has a link up about women on subs, so it’s a hot news item. Back in 2005 I offered up some suggestions on implementation if we got directed to put women on subs. The link is here.

Policy is all about implementation. Ideas aren’t useful until actually in place, and implementing any policy is a lot harder than thinking up the policy. There are several implementation issues that I highlighted in ’05 that I think are still germane. Here’s a summary:

  • Publicity will make it harder, not easier. We’ve already risked having too active a public affairs posture on the decision in my view, and the Air Force pilot experience shows that the extra pressure on people due to being in the spotlight is not good for them, the mission, or the policy. Do it ethically, do it right, do it with proper risk controls, do it quietly until it’s no big thing and the first woman selected for COB or command or TDU operator doesn’t have to have eight news articles to deal with, and the nagging feeling late at night that she got picked because of her X chromosome and not because she’s the best leader and most ruthless undersea knife fighter. Or worse: remember LT Hultgren, remember others.
  • Leadership will make or break implementation. Picking the right people, setting them up with the right sticks and carrots, in a focused effort will be better than throwing one poor female sailor on each boat at random.
  • Sustainability is important, and hard. One of the reasons submarine demographics is the way it is, is because of the entry pool of people before the Navy gets to see them. Nuclear engineering takes a certain kind of skill set, enlisted and officer; those skill pools skew male. High-demand demographic groups in engineering are disproportionately valuable to our manpower competitors in business and they’ll recruit hard and pay more, making it still harder to get the numbers we need to sustain mixed crews. To get mixed-gender crews more than once as a stunt, or as a token few, requires a pipeline. I would bet PERS-42 and the officer community managers are popping the Motrin over this one.

Details are at the 2005 link. You can tell me how wrong I am here or at the other site.

Update: Navy Times gets word on some of the implementation: accessing division officers and supply officers. No word on other sailors.

Posted by Chap in Navy

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  • Chaps

    It is one thing to have a couple plane crashes because standards were lowered but just wait til we have a major nuclear accident because we just had to get the numbers right, qualifications be damned.

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    I respectfully disagree.

    I retired almost two years ago, but at that time was one of very few who could say I have done just about everything that could be done on a submarine, usually more than once. At no time in about ten years of my life day for day underwater was I ever asked to do anything a female could not do. Having said that, when I was CO, we went five months straight without any liberty port and had 69 Sailors hot bunking without having so much as a bunk curtain for privacy. I would not want my wife, sister or daughter to serve in that environment, but not because they could not do the job. I have worked with surface nuclear power female officers that were some of the best officers I ever worked with and certainly better than I was in their pay grade.

    My opinion is Pers 42 will have no trouble finding qualified female volunteers to serve on submarines. However, as with all Navy warfare specialties, keeping the best of these female officers on active duty through the years of raising a family will be a challenge.

  • Chaps

    Historically, when integrating women into areas formerly “male only,” standards have taken a back seat to numbers. My point was not that women could not do the job. My point is that not enough fully qualified women will be produced fast enough to satisfy those who merely count noses for press releases and that qualifications will take a back seat to those press releases. Who in the submarine community will volunteer to be the next Stan Arthur and draw a bright line for qualifications?

  • Chap

    Admiral, great to hear from you. I think you’re right about retention. For 1120 officers I speculate it’ll hit the community at the same point most of the males punch out: right after the newly extended initial obligation’s done. I don’t know where we’re going to get all the enlisted nukes, though; that’s a different sourcing method. We have a demographic that’ll be hard to shift based on our recruiting pool unless we find a different way to recruit.

    I don’t think you and I are in disagreement about gender capabilities. The chaplain’s concern (that’s a plural “chaps”, different guy, not me) can be solved in a manner common to submariners: Make the standards very high like we do now and keep ’em there, ensuring staff-level social pressure to achieve diversity goals comes third after safety of ship and warfighting competence. Ensure everyone is clear about what the standard is, and fry any more senior officer who tries to weaken the standard to make advancement look better.

    We know how to be ruthless about standards. This is achievable; due to lack of knowledge and the above observations, I don’t have a warm fuzzy about sustainment yet.

  • Chap

    @Chap(s) plural: I address some of that in the linked essay.

  • Shaman(formerly Chaps)


    I hadn’t posted here in so long, I forgot that I had taken a new name here to avoid conflict with you; my apologies. I have served at sea in both the surface nuke and submarine world. I also served with Naval aviation. That community prided itself on high standards as well but they went by the wayside as high level political pressure came down to get a woman, any woman, a set of wings. The most senior officer to fry did so because he UPHELD standards. I hope the submarine community can do better and sesist the inevitable pressure from very senior people who care more about politics than ship safety or warfighting capability.

  • Susan Deal Anderson

    Adm Wachendorf: While I respect your service perhaps you ought to wake up and realize that you don’t get to make choices for others, especially based on their gender. The fact you would not want your daughter to serve on a sub has no bearing on whether or not women who CHOOSE to do so may or may not. You don’t get to make that choice for them.

    The fact you assume every woman who volunteers for a sub will want to raise a family is so sexist I wonder if you still live in the 1950’s. Not every woman wants, or can have, children. Maybe we should do away with the whole sub service, as I believe there are men out there wanting to raise families. Should we ban them as well?

    Get with the program Admiral.

    Like every other major change in the Navy those that volunteer to be the tip of the spear will have great love, respect and dedication to the Navy. I don’t think the submarine service will be an Operation Petticoat fantasy for those women. They know what they want and they have the gumption to go get it. Maybe you should focus on that rather than their uteri.

  • Bill Wells

    The Southern Company has begun construction on two new nuclear power plants in Georgia. I suppose they will be looking for qualified engineers who will fit their own diversity goals.

    There will be more of these sites built in the years to come.

  • Ryan

    So, what happens when the girls finish their DH tour and get ready to screen for XO? They can only serve on boomers. With no operational experience on a fast attack, some of these girls are going to have problems in being pinned as an 05 and 06 later on in life. Have the Sec-nav and the CNO, (both skimmers) stopped for a moment and thought about that simple concept in life before going forward?


  • Soon to be ENS

    @Chap: In October of last year, I interviewed with ADM Donald for accession to the nuc pipeline. I’m an English major with no technical background but good grades in math and physics. If NNPTC can turn me into a nuclear engineer, then I don’t doubt their ability to do the same with my female classmates.

    As a MIDN 1/C at the NROTC at a major public university, I will have the privilege this June of accepting a commission along with one of the first females to interview for submarines with the Director of Naval Reactors. This particular individual is one of the most capable, intelligent, and professionally-minded people I have ever known.

    The Navy will benefit from her leadership, and if opening up more of the service to her and to people like her is the only benefit of making this move, it will be worthwhile. I believe we need to make it clear to our people that their service is valued and that they have an opportunity to excel in a Navy career, no matter their race, class, or gender. Anyone who can meet the strenuous requirements of the nuclear submarine pipeline should be embraced with open arms.

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    Welcome the dialog. Like any organization, the U.S. Navy submarine force is far from perfect, but I believe high standards particularly in the nuclear propulsion side of the operation are and always have been a strength of the nuclear submarine force. Those high standards, rigorous inspections, and a culture of second checks were also hallmarks of the diesel submarine force long before Nautilus went to sea. There have been isolated examples in the submarine force where those standards were not maintained, but I do not see females on submarines being a cause of lower standards.

    I agree implementation of females on submarines will have challenges. Mentorship from seniors of the same gender, especially Chief Petty Officers for junior enlisted, in my opinion will be one of those challenges. Nonetheless, the females with whom I have served give me confidence that these challenges will be overcome.

    Examples of the price we pay when high standards are not maintained include INSURV results and LPD-17 class new construction deficiencies which have been discussed before in this blog.

    There are already surface nuclear power trained females that are being recruited for a growing civilian nuclear power industry. No doubt that will include female submarine Sailors in the future.

  • Sam Kotlin

    I thought women in submarines was a good idea ten years ago and said so in Proceedings at that time. Heartening to see the organization finally get this right. Challenges? Not so great compared to submarining and warfare. The sailor’s job is to do hard things well. I have faith that the COs and officers and CPOs and sailors will make this work. It is good to have a new source of talent for the boats.

  • Byron

    Ms. Anderson, please feel free to apologise to ADM Wachendorf any time you feel like doing so. Lord knows you owe him one for that feminist knee-jerk reaction.

  • SwitchBlade

    Ryan – since “girls” aren’t old enough to serve in the Navy, your concerns are totally irrelevant.

    While the Boomers are now the easiest to convert to meet the privacy requirements, I suspect the Fast Attack are being redesigned as we write. There is probably no reason new construct Fast Attack can’t meet the requirements even if most of the current ones can’t be economically retrofitted.

    In addition, women have served TAD on even fast attack for at least decades judging from some we got for TAD after their duty on subs in the early 90’s.

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    Thanks Byron. Ms. Anderson has a right to her opinion. I did not mean to suggest that only women can raise a family, that a career in the Navy was not compatible with raising a family, or that there are no outstanding senior females serving on active duty today. My comment was intended to describe macroscopic trends I observed on several selection boards, in counseling females on active duty, and from discussions with many female senior officers some of whom were senior to me. If my comments were perceived to be offensive, I apologize, as that was not my intent. I stand by my comment that retention of best qualified females (and males) is important to the Navy. It is my opinion, viewing the Navy officer corps as a whole, that females are at least as good and often better than their male counterparts in officer accession programs and junior officer ranks. I see a challenge in retaining those females as they progress through senior officer ranks. As far as going five months without seeing the sun in 32 foot diameter hull with 69 Sailors not able to have a bed with a bunk curtain they could call their own, I believe that speaks for itself with respect to mixed gender crews.

  • Byron

    ADM, it wasn’t her remarks that I found objectionable…it was the attitude she had that got me “het up”.

  • Warrant Diver

    Ms Anderson your comments are offensive. I don’t need to defend other bloggers here, they can do that themselves. But your words are devoid of substance and full of emotion. You have some learning to do.
    I hope you aren’t in a leadership position, if you are I hope your subordinates can survive your tenure.

  • STS1(SS) Retired

    I served on five fast attacks with some of the strangest people on earth. Had some of the worst supervisors ever known, until I served on a surface command with female chiefs and female officers.
    The Army has had their growing pains with becoming coed, but are doing it, as I discovered in Korea. If this is going to work, it will take a mindset change.
    Boats should not have to be reconfigured to accommadate women. They should all be one crew and deal with it, respecting each other and their differences.
    We had women on board for short trips for testing evolutions, and these women required all kinds of special treatment and were resented because of it. If they could have just tried to fit in without all the special treatment, it would have been much easier on them and all of us.
    I wish this change could take place seamlessly with women stepping on board without special accommadations or treatment and just getting to work like one of the crew, but I know it will never happen. So good luck to all you still serving and having to make all the special accommadations and change all the policies that have worked for so long.

  • Susan Anderson

    I stand by my comments that the women in the Navy have a right to choose whether or not they want to serve on a sub. There are just as many quirky women out there who won’t balk at the idea of months in a tube underwater, just like there are men. Once the Navy has made the decision to allow them on subs it’s not up to an Admiral or a WO or anyone else to decide, based on their personal preferences, what’s suitable for any particular individual. That’s what I object to, the dictating of what others shall do based on your own feelings about what *you* like. Or what someone’s daughter might like. If it’s not her at the detailers desk, it’s not your concern. If that’s feminist, sign me up. I feel the right to choose one’s own destiny is the heart of being an American.

    The fact that another opportunity is opening for women may be a boost to retention. Just like not every male is fit for submarine duty, neither will every female find it her calling. But for the ones that want it, it’s a great thing. Let them decide.

    For the record, I wouldn’t serve on a sub ever. But I sure don’t think that gives me the right to deny others the opportunity. And if you find that “offensive”, well that says far more about you than you’ll ever know about me. Please keep you ad hominem attacks to yourself.

  • Byron

    Ms. Anderson, I re-read ADM Wachendorfs first post. No where in it does he say, “no women in subs!” He stated that he did not wish to see any women in his FAMILY serve aboard subs. He went on to say that he saw no tasks on a sub that a women could not perform. In other words, he said nothing objectionable to your holy cause.

    I’m glad to see you have your emotions fully in check. Thanks for dropping by, the pleasure is all ours.

  • Susan Deal Anderson


    If Adm Wachendorf has issues with my posts I’m sure he’d bring them up. I think he understood what I was saying.

    The very first words of his post, in response to this blog that was pro women on subs were “I respectfully disagree.” I do believe he disagreed with the concept based on his personal feelings and I would derfinitely interpret that as “no women on subs.” Again, let’s let him correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’m sure he appreciates your interference and lack of professionalism. Since all you seem to object to is my “attitude” and gender I’ll take that as sign that my arguments are strong.


  • MikeJonesDC

    Ms. Anderson’s post is offensive and disrespectful. Her aggressive tone seeks to stifle intellectual inquiry and debate.

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    My statement that I respectfully disagreed was intended to refer to the blog post immediately before mine posted at 1204 which I interpreted to suggest that we might be risking a nuclear accident by putting women on nuclear submarines.

    I see no reason why women can not serve on Ohio Class SSBNs/SSGNs which is my understanding where the first females will be assigned. Berthing facilities on those ships are far better than the the ship I described with 69 Sailors hot bunking for five months without even a bunk curtain.

  • Warrant Diver

    Ms Anderson, each subsequent post you put here illustrates your inability to be truthful. So let’s take the comments one at at time:

    “…it’s not up to an Admiral or a WO or anyone else to decide, based on their personal preferences, what’s suitable for any particular individual.”
    Neither myself nor any other blogger said otherwise. Your statment is based on a false premise. Try to be factual.

    “Since all you seem to object to is my “attitude” and gender I’ll take that as sign that my arguments are strong.”

    “Please keep you ad hominem attacks to yourself”. Haven’t launched any yet. Here is a list of yours, however.

    Who objected to your gender? Your attitude is decidedly objectionable, not because of your beliefs but because you misstate others statements and invent things. Try to be factual.

  • Warrant Diver

    Ms Anderson your comments would carry more weight if they were factual.

    “it’s not up to an Admiral or a WO or anyone else to decide, based on their personal preferences, what’s suitable for any particular individual.” No one said otherwise. Your statement is based on a false premise. Stick to the truth, you will be better respected.

    “But I sure don’t think that gives me the right to deny others the opportunity. And if you find that “offensive”, well that says far more about you than you’ll ever know about me.” Again, a false premise that someone has said it is offensive to allow women the opportunity to serve on submarines. See above about the truth.

    “Please keep you ad hominem attacks to yourself.” Haven’t launched any yet. Am watching you throw some out, however.

    “Since all you seem to object to is my “attitude” and gender I’ll take that as sign that my arguments are strong.” That is certainly an incorrect assumption on your part. I haven’t seen you make an arugument yet, just seen you attacking others. No one has objected to your gender, so you bringing up a nonexistent objection renders you even less credible. Truth, above.

    So to clear up your assertions that I am against women on subs (I assume I’m the “WO” of your post) I’ll clarify my position. Clearly, so you can’t twist it around.

    Should women serve on subs? YES
    Can women do the job well? YES
    Have I served with women? YES
    Have I served on subs? YES

    Do I think you twist facts to prove some point of your own? YES

    Ok the last wasn’t about subs, but I thought it was relevant.

  • Warrant Diver

    Yeah, yeah, double post…I didn’t think the first one went so I retyped it…or maybe I thought it was worth saying twice.

  • SubIconoclast

    “Please keep you ad hominem attacks to yourself.”

    Nice to know we can all agree on some things (at least in principle, if not in practice).

    Shaman/Chaps identified my primary concern immediately (closely related to Chap’s first bullet in the original post). Successful gender integration will depend on maintaining standards in a workplace where standards determine life or death for the entire crew, rather than maintaining an arbitrary timeline in a media environment where the timeline determines opinion poll numbers. Maintaining the standards that differentiate our own tragedies (recently: GREENEVILLE, SAN FRANCISCO, MINNEAPOLIS-ST PAUL) from those of others (KURSK, MING 361, NERPA) by an order of magnitude or more will require sustained courage from leaders far above the submarine COs themselves.

    Will CNOs continue to prioritize the safety of our Sailors above politically attractive demographic numbers for the several years necessary to “complete” this integration process? Will they be ready to sacrifice their own careers, if necessary, to emphasize the primacy of standards? If so, maybe the expanded talent pool will help us overcome other, self-imposed workforce challenges that we will need to negotiate in the years to come.