WASHINGTON – The Navy plans to allow women to serve for the first time on submarines, the only class of ship from which they are currently barred, military and congressional officials said Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates notified Congress on Monday that the Navy intends to change its policy. Congress has 30 working days to object. Unless the House or Senate moves to block the shift, the policy could go into effect as early as mid-April.
Allowing women to serve as regular crewmembers would shatter a gender barrier that has stood since the U.S. submarine force was created in 1900. The new policy would allow women to serve in cramped quarters while at sea for months at time, a prospect that for years has managed to forestall consideration of such a change.
But lawmakers are unlikely to challenge the shift, congressional officials said. Many Republicans, who would be the most likely opponents, are working to preserve the ban on gays serving openly in the military and aren’t likely to expend effort on the issue of female service members in submarines.
In the letter to Congress, Gates said the Navy would implement a “phased approach” to allowing women to serve on submarines. Women are likely to be allowed first on larger submarines.
Women have been able to serve on the military’s surface ships since 1993. The following year, the Navy cited high costs of accommodating women on submarines as the reason for not allowing them to serve.
However, today’s fleet includes larger vessels that could more easily accommodate women. Larger submarines have multiple bathrooms, allowing for gender-specific use, and sleeping areas that could be cordoned off for women.