Feb. 23, 2010— -- Women are a big step closer to serving on U.S. Navy submarines. ABC News has learned that the Navy has decided to lift the ban on female submarine crew members. Subs are one of the last places in the military from which women are excluded.
The only potential roadblock remaining is for both house of Congress to pass legislation specifically barring the policy change during the 30 working day window for congressional comment that began Monday.
A Defense Department official tells ABC News that the civilian Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, and the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, support lifting the ban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed a letter last Friday notifying Congress of the Navy's policy change. The 30-day window for congressional comment began when Gates' letter was delivered to Capitol Hill.
Through a spokesperson, Mabus said he "believes it's a great idea and the right thing to do. He fully supports the assignment of women to submarines."
"The Secretary supports the Navy decision," said Geoff Morrell, Gates' spokesman.
"The Chairman fully supports it," said Capt. John Kirby, spokesman for Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But even if Congress goes along, it will be at least a year and a half before a woman is able to serve on a U.S. submarine. The Navy plans to phase women onto submarine crews gradually, and the first to serve will be officers. Submarine officers must complete more than a year of "nuclear school" before being assigned to a "boat."
A Defense Department official tells ABC News the hope is that 12 to 18 ROTC or Naval Academy graduates will enter submarine training.
Women started serving aboard Naval surface warships back in 1993. The Navy said hey have been barred from submarines partly because of the close quarters and limited sleeping areas.
But Naval officials and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs have said the time has come to "broaden opportunities for women." The Navy put together the details of how it will move forward.
Since officers are already separated from enlisted personnel on a submarine, Naval officials say they can accommodate female officers first. But no money has been set aside to retrofit sleeping areas or bathrooms for enlisted sailors in any submarines in service. Normal sub deployments can last up to 7 months.
Women on Submarines: Restrictions to Apply
The Defense Department official also says women will not be allowed to serve alone. There would always be at least two women on board. There are discussions about having female junior officers bunk with an experienced female officer, who could act as a mentor. Restrictions on pregnant women will be the same as those who serve on surface vessels.
The Navy hopes to start the inclusion of women on its larger submarines, which already have separate quarters. Smaller Virginia class attack subs may be reconfigured later during scheduled maintenance.
The timing of the order comes as graduating seniors at the academy and in ROTC programs have to decide which path they want to take in the Navy. Officials say it is possible that one of the first women to take up the Navy's offer, if approved by Congress, could be in command of a submarine in 17-18 years.