The attack on our submarines

By Charles Bloomer
web posted September 4, 2000

If the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk has taught us anything, it is that a submarine filled with weapons operating in a submerged environment is a dangerous place to be. Submarines are among the most complex machines man has ever built -- densely packed engineering marvels that can deliver massive destructive power against other ships or land targets while remaining submerged and undetected for extended periods of time.

Despite the perils associated with submarine operations and the dangers to which our sailors are exposed, the feminist movement in this country wants to make submariners' lives more difficult and dangerous. The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) is pushing hard to get women on submarines before Clinton leaves office and to force expensive changes to submarine designs that would impact the Virginia class submarine now in development.

Senator Olympia Snowe

Representative Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland successfully added an amendment to the 2001 Defense Authorization Bill that would require the president to provide 120 working days notice before assigning women to submarines. The Bartlett Amendment was approved in the House, but has met opposition in the House-Senate Conference Committee. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine has indicated that she might push for elimination of the Bartlett Amendment or for a reduction of the notification requirements to less than 120 days. Eliminating the Bartlett Amendment, or reducing the notification requirements would leave an opening for President Clinton to assign women to submarines without congressional debate or approval.

Adding women to the crew of a submarine adds nothing to its capabilities. In fact, making submarines coed will reduce the ability of the crew to function smoothly and efficiently. A submarine is a high stress environment; putting women on submarines adds appreciably to that stress.

There is no wasted space on a submarine. Every cubic foot has a function. Open spaces exist only for the crew to move about and operate equipment, or to provide access for maintenance. The crew's mess doubles as a classroom and movie theater. During combat operations, the wardroom becomes an operating room. The crew's lounge is a staging area for damage control equipment when a casualty occurs. So self sufficient are these underwater weapons that the limitation on how long a submarine can stay submerged is based on the amount of food it can carry and the fatigue of the crew.

The operation of the ship is a 24/7 effort. Nearly one-third of the crew is on watch at any given time. Sailors continuously operate, monitor and maintain equipment that powers the ship, controls depth and speed, maintains the atmosphere. At a moment's notice, the entire crew can be called to quarters to respond to casualties or to man battle stations to launch torpedoes or missiles.

Although called the "Silent Service", a submarine is never completely quiet inside. Ventilation fans and running equipment provide a constant background white noise that the sailors learn to tune out. Experience provides a submariner with a sensitivity to subtle changes in the background noise that alert him to changes in the ship's operating parameters or to potential problems. This sensitivity, this unconscious condition of alertness is on all the time, even during sleep. An experienced Dolphin wearer will awaken if he senses a change in the background noise – even something as minor as shifting ventilation fans from high speed to slow. Consequently, a deep, restful sleep is never possible.

Submariners recognize that they are working in a hostile environment. Sharing their long metal tube is a nuclear reactor, a steam-driven engine room, a torpedo room filled with explosive conventional warheads, and missile tubes that potentially contain nuclear warheads. In addition, miles and miles of electrical cabling connect hundreds of switchboards. More miles of piping carry cooling water to various components, high pressure hydraulic oil to operate control surfaces, masts, and periscopes, and high pressure air to launch torpedoes or blow water from the ballast tanks in order to surface. The submarine contains equipment to maintain the atmosphere -- oxygen generators, CO2 scrubbers, carbon monoxide removal equipment, plus high pressure oxygen stored in large banks. The submarine must distill fresh water from seawater to provide pure water for the steam plant and potable water for cooking and hygiene.

Even the mundane functions must be provided. The galley serves four meals a day, one every six hours. A laundry is provided.

In the back of every submariner's mind is the fact that their submarine is surrounded by ocean. The only thing standing between them and all the seawater in the world is two inches of steel.

A submariner is a submariner 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for as long as the ship is at sea. There is no going home at the end of the work day. There is no private space to which a sailor can withdraw. He shares his sleeping quarter with 120 other sailors. There is one shower for each 50 sailors. Personal belongings are kept in a 2 cubic foot locker. The living quarters take up less area than the passenger compartment on a 747 airliner. The ship may be at sea continuously for 60 or 70 days, or more if necessary.

A submariner can be called on at any time to man his battle station or to fight a casualty. His day is frequently oriented to an 18 hour cycle instead of 24 hours. He will spend 6 hours of those eighteen on watch, operating and monitoring equipment. The next 12 hours will be spent in training, doing the never ending paperwork, studying and qualifying for his next watch station, relaxing, sleeping. The routine becomes one of long periods of boring drudgery punctuated by intense moments of hyperactivity. Drills to maintain proficiency are unannounced, as are real casualties.

And casualties do occur. The vast majority are minor. But even minor casualties can quickly escalate to major problems if not contained quickly. A submariner's two worst nightmares are flooding and fire. A submarine has a finite amount of reserve buoyancy. Once that reserve is exceeded, the ship cannot surface. Fires produce toxic smoke that can quickly fill the confined spaces of a submarine, necessitating the use of breathing devices that restrict visibility and mobility. Submarine sailors are trained repeatedly on how to respond rapidly and effectively to these casualties.

It takes a new sailor about a year to earn his "Dolphins", designating him as "Qualified in Submarines". In order to qualify, a sailor must show an understanding of submarine systems and their operation, damage control procedures, and submarine characteristics. This overall understanding of the ship is required of every submariner, regardless of specialty. Earning Dolphins is the threshold that signifies that a sailor has earned the trust and confidence of his shipmates – the difference between being a "non-qual" and being a submariner. It is a proud achievement in every submariner's career, and rightfully so.

For 100 years, the US has operated submarines. In that time submarines have gotten bigger, faster, deeper diving and more capable. The advent of nuclear propulsion has allowed the submarine to become a true submersible, as opposed to a diesel submarine that had the capability to operate submerged but required periodic visits to the surface. The continuing story of the submarine is one of ever-increasing complexity and more demanding missions. Submarines have evolved from being primarily anti-ship weapons platforms to being anti-submarine weapons that launch torpedoes; anti-ship cruise missile carriers; intelligence gathering platforms; carrier task force screening ships; SEAL Team delivery ships; land attack cruise missile launchers; and ballistic missile launchers. In short, the task has not gotten any easier.

As the task becomes more complex and more complicated, more demands are placed on our submariners. Operating a submarine safely and effectively requires that every crew member be able to focus his attention on his assigned task. The undersea environment is unforgiving, and mistakes can be deadly.

As Admiral Carlisle Trost, a former Chief of Naval Operations, points out in the September edition of the US Naval Institute Proceedings, the issue under consideration is not about women – not about how smart, how capable, or how dedicated women are. The issue at hand is combat readiness. Assigning women to submarines contributes nothing to the combat effectiveness of a submarine. Adding women to this high stress environment will produce distractions and morale problems that only add to the danger already inherent in submarine operation.

Senator Snowe should listen to the submarine veterans and experts before she tries to subvert the effectiveness of our front line defenders and undermine the safety of our sailors.

Submarines are combat vehicles that make a significant contribution to our national defense. They should not be used as petri dishes for social experimentation.

© 2000 Charles Bloomer. Mr. Bloomer is a retired US Navy submarine officer. He can be contacted at

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

Current Issue

Archive Main | 2000

E-mail ESR



1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.