In US Navy, women to start submarine duty

WASHINGTON, Apr 30 (AFP) – The US Navy's long-standing ban on women serving in submarines came to an end on Thursday, with commanders saying female officers would bolster the underwater fleet.

"Maintaining the best submarine force in the world requires us to recruit from the largest possible talent pool," said Vice Admiral John Donnelly, commander of naval submarine forces.

The Navy said up to 19 female officers will start duty on guided-missile and ballistic missile subs as soon next year or early 2012, after undergoing training to serve on the cramped vessels that have long been an all-male bastion.

(AFP file) This picture provided by the US Navy shows the Virginia-class attack submarine USS New Mexico during a commissioning ceremony in Norfolk, in March.

The move comes 17 years after women were began serving on US naval ships, and after other US allies including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Norway -- already opened subs to women.

The military informed Congress of the plan on February 19 and the deadline to raise objections expired Wednesday at midnight, with lawmakers taking no action.

"I have had a number of young females both in college now and already graduated from college call and express interest," Admiral Barry Bruner, head of a task force on bringing women into subs, told reporters.

Senior naval officers in the past resisted proposals to break with tradition, citing the vessels' extraordinarily close quarters and the cost of having to modify subs to accommodate female crew members.

Some retired crew members argued the presence of women could upset the delicate balance in a cramped sub where there is virtually no privacy.

But wives of male submariners were mostly supportive of the move, said Bruner.

At a public meeting held on Wednesday, a couple of wives were not enthusiastic but he said they were not worried about "hanky panky" on board.

"What their concern was how do we make sure that when a woman comes aboard, she is treated the exact same way as the man in terms of promotion," he said.

The Navy said it would draw on its experience with women serving on warships, and ensure strict rules to prevent possible sexual assault.

"We are already trained on sexual assault. We have very high standards in the Navy and in the submarine force. We will train on that again," he said.

Submariners, or "bubbleheads," are also facing another change during their long missions under sea, as the navy has ordered a ban on smoking below deck by the end of the year.

An estimated 30 to 40 percent of crew members smoke, but officials say their second-hand smoke poses a threat to the health of their comrades.

Removing barriers to women on subs comes as President Barack Obama urges an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military, a move opposed by some senior officers and lawmakers.

Other navies that have allowed women to serve on submarines say the change has gone smoothly.

Australia made the move in 1998 and a navy spokeswoman told AFP that the integration of women "has been proven to work well," with a degree of privacy for both sexes.

But an Australian submarine skipper found himself in hot water last year after joking in an interview with a men's magazine that fitting out female sailors in bikinis could help solve a recruitment crisis.

Rights activists in the United States say the navy's decision was long overdue, but want the American military to end a ban on women in combat roles in ground units, including in special forces.

Despite a policy designed to keep women away from ground combat, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have thrust women into battle with insurgents who do not operate along defined front lines.

As a result, women have earned medals for valor and the US Army's chief of staff, General George Casey, has called for a review of the rules.

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