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Women in Submarines - Tailhook at Test Depth?

by Michael DiMercurio, [IMAGE]2003


[IMAGE] -- Author's Note: While this column marks my inauguration as a columnist, I've been an opinionated and controversial commentator for decades. This forum will allow me to express various unsolicited opinions about several subjects of which I have intimate knowledge, and perhaps a few more that I don't.

I was a Cold War nuclear submarine officer and an Annapolis graduate. That may qualify me to comment on the Navy, the Submarine Force and the Naval Academy, although in this column, while I will be commenting on this and a wider field. I've written seven bestselling novels and one nonfiction book. My readership knows that I have buried commentaries throughout my work, but nowhere will my opinions be so bold and straightforward as in this column. I'd like to thank Military.com for offering me this opportunity. --

Should women serve aboard nuclear submarines? Let's look at some anecdotal evidence from my own experience to attempt an answer.

In 1976, I found out that I had been nominated to the Academy by a front page article reading, "LOCAL GIRL NOMINATED TO U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY." The article's continuation on the last page of the sports section read, "also nominated was Michael DiMercurio…" Obviously I resented being on the back page. Induction Day 1976 was a media circus, the cameras and hot lights and microphones following every female inductee. It would seem the class of '80 did not have a single male member, or so the press would make one believe.

After arriving at the Academy, it was clear to see that the women had lower physical standards, which seemed absurd when we were preparing for combat. At an institution where the unofficial motto was, "if the minimum weren't good enough, it wouldn't be the minimum," suddenly there was a special exception for girls - a shorter wall on the obstacle course, longer time to run the mile, fewer chinups. It might sound petty, but back then these were the things that defined the difference between passing and being kicked out of the Academy. In 1976, we woke up one morning to find that the women's lower obstacle course wall had been painted hot pink, with a "Woman Power" fist superimposed. The culprits of that "recon raid" were never brought to justice.

One female midshipman who shared my time at the Academy was renown for her desire to have sex with any officer or midshipman who asked. This was one of many allegations that circulated about sex scandals with female midshipmen, but of all the rumors, this one was confirmed by a close friend. The Naval Academy of the 1970s was ill prepared for this kind of problem.

The class of 1979, the last all-male Academy class, had the motto Omnes Viri inscribed on their class rings. It translated to: "All Male." At the Air Force Academy, the class of 1979's rings and class emblem had a banner reading, "LCWB." Class leaders convinced their superintendent that it had to do with adjectives such as loyalty and courage. In fact, it stood for "last class with balls."

So much for the Academy experience. My at-sea experiences with women were fewer, but perhaps still worth consideration. A female officer on the tender ship once said in a high pitched voice, in public, "I can be as good an officer of the deck as any man." Then she giggled. For the next year, that phrase resounded on the decks of our submarine as we macho lieutenants imitated her. Then came a long deployment to the Mediterranean to trail Russian submarines. After fifty-four days submerged, three weeks after Hammerhead ran out of solid food, I and my shipmates were hallucinating. The subjects of those hallucinations? Female voices. Could the stress of prolonged submerged operations withstand having an integrated male-female crew?

Ten years after my class' induction day at the Academy I returned from an arduous sea tour to the Naval Academy to teach in the engineering department. I could tell immediately that in a few short years, the culture was completely different. Where before a gulf existed between the male and female midshipmen, suddenly it seemed that the men and women hadn't gotten the message that they were supposed to be enemies. The shorter wall remained on the obstacle course, but the pink paint and the "Woman Power" fist were gone. In contrast to the rumors of sexual scandals and feminine manipulation present in the 70s, the women of the classes of the late 80s and early 90s seemed disciplined, professional and competent. They were true midshipmen. They were accepted and they fit. I could barely believe it.

I had the opportunity to interview an F-14 aviator who screened for squadron command but elected to punch out of the Navy. His nightmare account of a deployment ruined by two dozen pregnancies and the evacuation of the pregnant women was exacerbated by the senior officers who refused to fight this trend, afraid in the post-Tailhook Navy to have their careers ruined by seeming anti-female. The progress made by the female midshipmen had not yet made it out to the fleet.

This is the end of the anecdotal evidence. What is the verdict? You might be surprised.

The debate about women in submarines flared up about the time I had written five successful fiction novels of nuclear submarine combat, all of them with all-male crews. My plots were now happening a few decades in the future, I now had to make a choice. I myself was different by this point. Two daughters and a happy marriage later, I felt I understood women and what they could contribute to the world. So, with a submarine combat novel taking place in the year 2020, would the new submarines have women aboard? And if so, what would they be like?

Believing that whether I liked their presence or not, that women were in the fleet to stay, I included them. But in my fiction, the women entered the submarine force as senior officers. The reason for that recommendation: No one aboard would ever question the authority of the submarine's executive officer, who is ten feet tall no matter who he (or she) is. The Navy would do well to take a few dozen surface ship female officers who have the best fitness reports and train them in submarines. Then put them to work as nuclear submarine navigators and watch them. My prediction is that some will fail, but those who succeed will be worth the effort. Only after females have "made their bones" as dolphin-wearers, women should be admitted to the junior officer and enlisted ranks. Females in the senior ranks will then be able to supervise and discipline the junior females and advise the male command structure about commanding females without bias.

But what do we do about the possibility of fraternization and pregnancy? Pregnancy is absolutely incompatible with naval service. This should be obvious, but the experience of my fighter jock friend testifies to the fact that senior levels of the Navy do not yet get it. Any female volunteer to the submarine force should be given long-term birth control, by any of several fool-proof (and sailor-proof methods) such as long-acting injections or subcutaneous implants. That solves the pregnancy problem, avoiding the issue of low level nuclear radiation for a fetus. But will the men and women, during long submerged periods, fraternize and thereby impact combat readiness? Despite how different our youths are today from a generation ago, the sexual attractions and hormones remain as strong. The isolated cases of fraternization will happen and will need to be dealt with. If you want disciplined females, make sure there are senior officers aboard who are female and there will be no trouble.

We come inevitably to the issue of the objections of the submarine sailors' wives. Listen, ladies, we don't run a fleet to please the wives' club. If we can make life more comfortable for our military families, we should do so, but to keep women from submarines because Petty Officer Smith's wife is worried he will sexually misbehave would be foolish. Mrs. Smith needs to grow up. If sexual misbehavior is a concern for Petty Officer Smith, that misconduct will take place in Toulon, France or Halifax, Nova Scotia. Petty Officer Smith, aware that the eyes of the executive officer are everywhere, will probably not be making any midwatch dates in engineroom lower level. And if he does, he can provide a valuable example at captain's mast for anyone else who would be so foolish. For the most part, the women aboard Petty Officer Smith's submarine will be regarded as younger or older sisters, not as potential sexual conquests. There will be exceptions, but (again), that's what the "tough love" of the executive officer is for.

All this assumes that women are coming to the submarine force whether we like it or not. But should they? If we were to craft the submarine force anew, would we consider integrated crews? What is the final verdict about assigning women to submarines?

Enter the final data point - Army Private Jessica Lynch. The military had always insisted that having a female in our military in a combat situation would be taking the chance that a woman would become a POW, and become a terrible hostage to a brutal enemy, and used for a publicity campaign that would demoralize America and contribute to a lost war. When Private Lynch was taken prisoner, America wept, but the military fought on. After her rescue, recuperation and repatriation, surrounded by yellow ribbons, Private Lynch stared at the crowd, clenched her jaw, and said, "I'm a soldier too." What member of the military, past or present, could hear that and not be inspired? I decided that moment that if I were to do it all over again, I would want a Private Lynch to be on my submarine, fighting at my side along with my other dolphin-wearing comrades. Perhaps it was that day that women, after all their struggles, earned their billets in the Armed Forces of the United States.

That brings us to the last bastion of the all-male military - the nuclear submarine force. Should a woman be allowed to join the submarine force? I'm convinced the answer is the same to whether a man should be allowed to join - it depends on the man. The right females could actually enhance our warfighting capability. Let's not forget that at a molecular level, women are fundamentally different than men in every aspect, and it is this difference that could be vitally valuable in battle. By leaving women on the pier, we leave behind all their different thought patterns, intuition and talent, all of which could mean winning a battle that would otherwise be lost.

Can we be successful integrating women into the submarine force? The answer is: absolutely. The force has the discipline and the talent to make this work, just as they have succeeded at sea against improbable odds since John Holland sold the gas-electric submarine to the Navy over a hundred years ago.

And should we make the attempt? A thousand times, yes. I hope I live to hear the day that a woman says the words, "I'm a submariner too."

Let me know what you think. I'm standing by at readermail@terminalrun.com.

See you at test depth,

Michael DiMercurio

Michael DiMercurio
Princeton, New Jersey



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