Undersea Medicine Expert Warns of Health, Operational Problems
The push to assign women to submarines began in September, 2009, when Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead started promoting the idea as if women’s career opportunities were the only consideration. The Center for Military Readiness issued an immediate news release, drawing attention to irresolvable problems with the program—none of which had nothing to do with the abilities of female officers or sailors.
In addition to habitability concerns in confined submarine spaces, health risks unique to women could threaten lives as well as operational efficiency. Navy officials diverted attention from that inconvenient information, disregarding overwhelming opposition within the submarine community.
Secretary Mabus and Admiral Roughead demonstrated their lack of personal experience with submarines by equating them with larger surface vessels that operate in fresh air, not under the sea. In this sealed environment, as confining and dangerous as outer space, man-made air must be produced to preserve the life, health, and efficiency of the submarine crew. Unlike the atmospheric air on surface ships, man-made air has many problems in its production and will never be equivalent to the natural product.
On February 19 the Secretary of Defense sent formal notice to Congress, claiming in a three-paragraph letter that even though assignment of women to submarines was considered “cost prohibitive” in 1994, the Department of the Navy has “recently concluded a further review of this matter and has determined it is ready to implement policy changes to support a phased approach to the assignment of women to submarines.”
On the contrary, as the Washington Times reported on April 5, there has been no careful study and there is no objective plan to deal with medical concerns that are unique to women in the submarine environment.
On April 29 Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead moved ahead with their announced plans to assign female sailors to submarines. Congress accepted the move passively—failing to fulfill oversight responsibilities by asking questions about issues of critical importance to the submarine community. Much to the alarm of submariners, their families, and supporters, Navy officials still have not addressed the health-related and operational concerns associated with this policy, many of which were discussed in the Navy’s own prior reports and responses to inquiries from the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) in 2000-2001.
On March 11, 2010, Rear Admiral Hugh Scott (MC) USN (Ret.) sent a detailed letter to the Secretaries of Defense and the Navy, Pentagon officials responsible for the submarine force, and the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. In his letter, Dr. Scott, an expert in the field of undersea medicine, discussed in detail a long list of irresolvable health risks associated with gender integration on submarines. For example:
Dr. Scott addressed his letter to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, author of legislation mandating prior notice to Congress before any action to assign women to submarines. Not a single member of Congress responded to Scott’s letter.
Questions from CMR
In the meantime, the Center for Military Readiness submitted the following questions to senior Pentagon and congressional leaders:
1. Given the extremely low retention rates of female nuclear trained female surface officers, how can the Navy justify habitability intrusions and compromises to accommodate female sailors on all types of submarines? (Normal career paths include smaller subs as well as larger ones.)
2. Given what is known about current non-deployment rates due to pregnancy among enlisted women as well as officers, what is the Navy’s estimate of comparable non-deployment rates of female officers and enlisted women on submarines? (Extensive programs to discourage Navy pregnancies have failed. According to Navy Times, rates have increased.)
3. How many mid-ocean evacuations are expected to occur on an annual basis and how will these evacuations be accomplished in remote areas; i.e., under the Polar icecap?
4. If a submarine CO is faced with the operational necessity to continue an undersea mission, despite high risks of birth defects for a newly-discovered embryonic “passenger,” what does the Navy expect the skipper to do?
5. How many women are likely to permanently lose reproductive capability due to botched undersea surgeries or worse—how many are expected to die due to hemorrhage in conditions offering no options for immediate evacuation?
6. What is being done to inform women of health risks to themselves and to future offspring in the embryonic stage of development?
Despite Dr. Scott’s warnings and the Navy’s own previous reports, not a single member of Congress responded to the questions.
CMR President Elaine Donnelly posted two messages asking the same six questions on the widely-read COMSubGroup TEN blog, which is operated by Rear Adm. Barry L. Bruner, head of the “Women in Submarines Task Force.” Donnelly noted that birth defects are difficult, the loss of reproductive capability devastating, and ectopic pregnancy life-threatening for women. Bruner conspicuously avoided answering her questions.
Instead, Adm. Bruner claimed on his blog that there are “no discernable medical issues that should preclude the assignment of women to submarines.” He did not cite medical studies to support his statement, but he was probably referring to studies comparing adult men and women that specifically omitted discussion of the unique risks to adult women who are pregnant—a condition that is not rare among women of child-bearing age.
It’s not as if the Navy is unaware of these issues. Details about women’s unique health risks were chronicled in this November 26, 2001, report of the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory:
The report documented additional risks of spontaneous abortion and higher rates of migraine headaches, orthopedic injuries, and loss of bone strength over time (osteoporosis). It also commented on risks to a female sailor’s developing embryo if a pregnancy begins or is discovered while underway: “The submarine atmosphere, containing a chronically elevated level of CO2 and other contaminants, and submarine environmental factors such as noise and vibration levels, present currently unknown risks to the fetus. Reassurance, therefore, cannot be given to the reproductive age crewmember should she be pregnant while deployed.” (NSMRL, p. 26)
Putting the horse after the cart, Adm. Bruner wrote that the Bureau of Medicine & Surgery has proposed three additional studies “to further quantify and validate the low probability of any effects of a submarine's environment on women's health or fetal development.”
His disingenuous comment about "low probability" risks, followed by a pledge to conduct three more studies after the fact, suggests that previous medical studies were not reassuring. One has to wonder, to what degree the Navy is willing to risk the development of an unborn child in order to promote “diversity.” Irresolvable problems are being ignored at incalculable risk.
Navy women should be officially informed that a career in submarines could put their future family and/or reproductive capability in danger. The submarine community as a whole also deserves an explanation of why it is necessary to implement this program without any cost/benefit analysis in terms of operational necessity, not "diversity" or other social goals.
Absent this information, evaluated objectively, Congress had a duty to intervene. Instead, both Navy leaders and members of Congress let the submarine community down.
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More information on this topic is available in the report of the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), titled Submarine Assignment Policy Assessment, which discussed difficult habitability issues that have not changed. SAIC noted that submarine accommodations have been compared to living inside a clock. Unencumbered space is about one-third to one-half that afforded to crewmembers n small surface ships. Total living area for more than 130 people on an attack sub is equivalent to a medium-size house.
A diagram in the SAIC report illustrated how cramped a submarine’s living space is by superimposing the outline of a typical attack sub over the fuselage of a 747 aircraft. In this confined space sailors are expected to spend 77 days or more, often “hot-bunking” in shared berthing compartments offering little or no privacy.