The U.S. Navy formally announced on Thursday that it will for the first time recruit women into its submarine force.
It has been 20 years since the Navy first allowed women to serve on its surface warfare ships. But submarines remained off-limits for several reasons.
The main reason had to do with cramped quarters on the subs, where there is little privacy. Now the chief of the Navy's task force on women in submarines, Rear Admiral Barry Bruner, says larger, more modern subs have changed that.
"The reason it's available to women is that we can give them privacy," said Admiral Bruner. "So we're finally where we can do it. And I'm pleased that the submarine force is headed down this path."
The larger submarines are two types of missile platforms - some of them very large boats that launch long-range ballistic missiles and others that are newer vessels that launch cruise missiles and support special operations, particularly in the fight against terrorist groups.
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Still the subs have close quarters, and some of them spend months under the sea. Admiral Bruner says preparations to put women on the submarines include re-emphasizing training, for men and women, aimed at avoiding sexual harassment, improper onboard relationships and related problems. But the admiral, who is a career submarine officer, says he does not expect serious problems.
"The change to the culture on the submarines is going to be pretty minimal, to be honest with you," he said.
That is partly because the plan will start with only about 19 women - all of them officers - who will command various units on the boats. In addition, Bruner says there will be at least three women on every gender-integrated sub, so none of them has to serve alone among about 160 men on each boat.
The admiral says that so far, there is no plan to allow enlisted women to serve on submarines, which would involve larger numbers and might require re-fitting the boats to have more-private living quarters.
But to hear Admiral Bruner talk, if the female officers succeed on submarines, enlisted women might soon follow.
"It's such an incredible talent pool to draw from that we haven't been able to," said Rear Admiral Barry Bruner. "So we're finally at the point where we have a viable career path because we have both ballistic missile and cruise missile submarines for the first time available to women."
Although the policy change was made official on Thursday, the first women will not climb down into submarines with their duffel bags until the end of next year. There is a lengthy selection and training process ahead for women who decide to apply for the submarine force.
And Admiral Bruner says they will face the same challenges men have faced in the 110-year history of the U.S. Navy's submarine force.
"The submarine force is serious business," he said. "And operating a submarine is serious business. We don't always meet perfection. We're human. But that is the never ending standard that we try to shoot for. So as a result, there is a different pressure on you when you report to a submarine that if you haven't done it before, it takes a while, and it is a little bit of a shock to get used to."
But the admiral is quick to add that he expects women to adapt to the rigors of submarine life as well as men have, and that he has women on his task force who were among the first to serve on surface ships 20 years ago to help with any issues that come up.