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New Debate on Submarine Duty for Women

Women in the United States Navy command warships and pilot combat jets off aircraft carriers today, but there remains one part of the fleet where they cannot serve: aboard the nation's nuclear-powered submarines.

Now, as the Navy has begun building a new class of submarines, an influential military advisory committee has reignited the debate over the exclusion, recommending that the Navy plan to revamp existing
submarines and build new ones with the separate bunks and bathrooms necessary to allow women to join one of the service's most storied and traditional fraternities.

''It's important we re-examine what is still closed to women,'' said Mary J. Wamsley, the chairwoman of the group, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, the Pentagon's main body that recommends
policies on the issues that face women in the armed forces.

The recommendation has provoked a flurry of protests from those inside and outside the Navy who believe that putting women side by side with men in the extraordinarily tight confines of a submarine would
disrupt the crew and compromise its war-fighting ability.

It has highlighted a significant rift between the Navy's civilian leadership, including Richard Danzig, the secretary of the Navy, and some of its senior officers.

In a speech to the Naval Submarine League last summer, Mr. Danzig signaled support for integrating the submarine fleet, but in the controversy over his remarks he retreated. He warned in the speech that the
''submarine community'' -- a tightly knit cadre of crew members and officers -- risked becoming dangerously out of touch with society if it did not adapt to include women, as well as more minority submariners.

''The most Narcissus-like thing about creating something in your own image, about being in love with your own image,'' he said, ''is the continued and continuous existence of this segment of the Navy as a
white male preserve.''

But here in Norfolk, home port for the Navy's Atlantic Fleet and 12 of its 57 nuclear-powered attack submarines, the ''white male preserve'' has been
largely unmoved by Mr. Danzig's concerns and the committee's recommendations. To them, the experience of spending weeks submerged in tense, claustrophobic conditions, with little space and no privacy, makes the introduction of women virtually unthinkable.

''I only know one way, the way I was brought up,'' said Cmdr. James G. Foggo 3rd, the commanding officer of the attack submarine Oklahoma City. ''I've been doing this for 18 years, and it works well.''

Mr. Danzig's aides insist that he merely hoped to start a debate with his remarks last summer, not impose a change, but no sooner had he delivered the speech than the Navy's top admiral, Jay L. Johnson, flatly rejected the idea. ''For us, for me as chief of naval operations, I do not intend to change,'' he said.

Navy officials have not publicly responded to the committee's recommendation, saying they must first provide additional information the committee has requested. The officials said the issue was not dead,
noting that the Navy reviewed the restrictions annually, but they emphasized that for now the service had no intent to lift them.

The advisory committee, however, said the issue could not wait, not only because of questions of sexual equality but also because of practicality.

Despite offering extra pay, the Navy has had difficulty recruiting enough men to serve aboard submarines, in part because of the more rigorous intellectual and psychological standards they must meet. Permitting
women, who today make up 14 percent of the Navy's 370,000 personnel, would vastly expand the pool of potential recruits.

The Navy has also begun building the next generation of submarines, the Virginia class, which, like today's submarines, will have berthing areas designed for an all-male crew. Not including accommodations for women
now, the committee said, would make installing them in the future significantly more expensive or keep women off submarines for decades to come.

''Because submarines currently in the fleet are expected to stay in service as long as 40 years, plans must be made now for gender-integrated crews,'' the committee wrote in its recommendations. ''This would
allow the assignment of the most highly qualified personnel regardless of gender.''

Many of the arguments on both sides are the same as those made when the Navy first allowed women on support ships, in 1978, and on combat ships, in 1994. Since then, women have joined crews even on ships once
considered too small for mixed crews, most recently the Navy's mine hunters.

The Navy prohibits women from serving in 33,000 positions, about 25,000 of which are aboard submarines. The other areas are in the Seals and jobs that directly support Marine combat forces deployed aboard Navy
ships.

Other navies, including those of Australia, Norway and Sweden, have removed gender barriers on submarines, but United States Navy officials quickly point out that those crews are not subjected to the arduous cruises of American submarines, which can remain submerged for
days or weeks at a time.

''In addition to personnel stress inherent in all combat vessels, submarine crews must endure long periods of submerged operations, unrelenting crowding, lack of privacy, infrequent communications with family
and the outside world, no ability even to go topside for fresh air and a view,'' a 1995 assessment by the Navy said. That report also cited a higher incidence of health problems with women.

Others dismiss those concerns. ''It is ludicrous to say the living conditions and psychological conditions have more of an impact on women than on men,'' said Ms. Wamsley, the deputy chief of police in Commerce City,
Colo.

But even proponents concede that submarines pose unique challenges for integration, all of which were evident aboard the Oklahoma City, whose crew was preparing to head to sea on Monday.

At 360 feet long, tip to tip, the submarine seemed impossibly crowded, even without its full crew. The Los Angeles class of submarines was built in the 1980's for a crew of 108; with additions like Tomahawk cruise
missiles that require additional personnel, the Oklahoma City now has 145.

Passageways are so narrow that crew members have to turn sideways to pass one another, chest to chest. The enlisted men share two bathrooms and sleep stacked three deep in racks small enough to make turning over
problematic.

When at sea, the lowest-ranking crew members have to share bunks, sleeping in shifts. To minimize that unpopular practice, the submarine has installed mattresses in its torpedo room. Only the commander and
executive officer have private rooms, each no bigger than a closet.

''The thing about submarines is space is a commodity,'' Commander Foggo said, sitting in the officers' ward room, which serves as dining hall, conference room, chapel and, in case of medical emergencies, operating
room.

Capt. Michael C. Tracy, chief of staff for the Atlantic fleet, said the constraints complicated the integration of women. Making submarines bigger would limit their speed and maneuverability, he said. Squeezing in
additional bunks would mean losing something else, like weapons.

Even the seemingly simple alternative of putting women in the smaller of the submarine's existing enlisted berthing areas would raise problems. A recent Navy report noted that fewer women would share one bathroom,
forcing more men to share the other and raising questions of equality. That would also not answer the question of what to do with women who are officers.

Also, because of submarines' design, crew members have to operate critical electronic, hydraulic and air systems that pass through berthing areas, meaning they would need access at all times to areas where women would sleep. Even the commander's room has a valve for
the submarine's ballast tank, which can be operated only by reaching over his fold-out bed.

Then there is cost. The Navy estimates it would cost $300,000 per bunk to integrate submarines because of wholesale design changes that would be needed. Converting aircraft carriers costs $4,000 per bunk.

Still, some in the Navy think a change is inevitable.

''If they want to make it happen, it can happen,'' one senior Navy official said. Another noted that Admiral Johnson's tenure as chief of naval operations would end in June, and the Navy's civilian leaders could raise
the issue again under a new chief.

Even in the fleet, opposition is not universal. David R. Cross, a fireman aboard the Oklahoma City, said that as a matter of equality it would be a good thing to introduce women into submarines' fraternal world. As
for potential problems with privacy, he said, ''It's just like anything else in life: you have to adjust.''

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