Pentagon Moves To Lift Ban On Women In Subs

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A longstanding ban on women serving on submarines is being lifted. Defense Secretary Robert Gates notified Congress in a letter that the Navy intends to repeal the ban.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, changes in who can serve in the military. Congress and the military have been debating whether to allow gays to serve openly. And today there was a development on a different front. The Pentagon announced that plans to lift its ban on allowing women to serve aboard Navy submarines.

Well, joining us to discuss both of those issues is Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, let's start with the women on submarines. Why the change in policy?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Robert, this has really been in the works for some time. The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has pushed it. He even advocated this as chief and naval operations a number of years ago. And, also, he told Congress last fall, listen, it's time to allow women to serve on subs. It's time to open up more opportunities to women. So, really, it's accelerated since last fall.

SIEGEL: Women have served on surface ships for years now. What was the rationale for their being barred from submarine service?

BOWMAN: Well, one of the big reasons was the tight quarters on submarines. You need to create separate sleeping quarters, bathrooms for men and women. That was an excuse not to do this. And some people say that the real reason was the Navy is very tradition bound. And there was strong opposition from the submarine community. And Navy Secretary Richard Danzig a dozen years ago called the submarine community a white male bastion.

He tried to push to have women to serve on submarines, but the idea was eventually scrapped because there was opposition even from the top Navy officers.

SIEGEL: So I gather this is not a simple order that now takes effect immediately? There's a more complicated process than that?

BOWMAN: Right. There's a review process. Congress will weigh in over the next 30 days. And then after this I'm told there will be a phased approach. They'll put women on the largest of the submarines, the ballistic missile subs called boomers. And they would modify them, the bathrooms, the heads and the sleeping quarters. And then they would just phase it in over time to all roughly 75 submarines.

The average crew in a submarine is roughly about 140 or so, roughly 15 percent women in the Navy, but it's not sure exactly how many women would want to serve on submarines. This is a duty that's not for everyone.

SIEGEL: Do you expect anyone to try to block this, to keep the Navy from allowing women on submarines?

BOWMAN: You know, we may see some opposition on Capitol Hill. I don't think you'll see much within the military. And we certainly won't see the kind of strident opposition we've seen with gays in the military.

SIEGEL: Speaking of which, don't ask, don't tell, we heard the views of the top Army officer today. What did he have to say?

BOWMAN: Well, General George Casey testified today before the Senate. Now, every since Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress he believed gays should be allowed to serve openly, question has always been, well, what do the other Joint Chiefs of Staff think? And today we got our first hint. And the message goes slowly. Here's General Casey.

General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Army): I do have serious concerns about the impact of the repeal of the law on a force that's fully engaged in two wars and has been at war for eight-and-a-half years. We just don't know the impacts on the readiness and military effectiveness.

BOWMAN: Now, what General Casey did say that he agrees to the Pentagon's plan to study this over the next year makes sense.

SIEGEL: Okay. NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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