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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Navy announced on Thursday that women will start serving on U.S. submarines as early as next year, lifting a symbolically important barrier to women in the U.S. armed forces.
Women, who account for about 15 percent of the more than 336,000 members of the U.S. Navy, can already serve on its surface ships.
But critics long argued that submarines were different, pointing to long deployments below the sea and cramped quarters where some crews share beds in shifts -- a practice known as "hot bunking."
Briefing reporters on the policy change, Rear Admiral Barry Bruner said the Navy aimed to train an initial group of 19 women officers, who, due their rank, would have separate quarters from the regular enlisted crew.
"I wouldn't call it a quota, but it's a goal," Bruner said, adding it was important to bring in enough women "so they're not isolated" aboard individual submarines.
They will start serving on ballistic missile and guided missile submarines in late 2011 or early 2012.
The Navy had waited to make the announcement until a 30-day period for congressional review had expired.
Bruner acknowledged lingering concerns among some Navy wives but said they were not related to "hanky panky" below the sea. Instead, he suggested their concerns centered on whether men and women would be treated equally in their career paths.
The change comes as the Pentagon prepares for a possible end to the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays in the military, one of President Barack Obama's policy objectives.
The move also coincides with another key lifestyle change for submariners, as many as 40 percent of whom smoke, according to one survey, but who must ditch smoking aboard when a ban goes into effect on December 31.
Bruner noted that there was about a year for submarine crews to adjust to the smoking ban before the first women would come aboard.
"We understand that change is tough, and we certainly don't want to put two tough things together," he said.
Proponents of the expanded role of women in the armed forces say the policy change for submarines is an important one but note that women are still barred from traditional frontline combat roles in the military.
Still, female soldiers often run the same risks as men in Iraq and Afghanistan, where bombings and other insurgent attacks can happen almost anywhere.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman