The Navy plans to allow women to serve for the first time on submarines, the only class of ship from which they are barred, military and congressional officials said Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates notified Congress on Monday that the Navy intended to change its policy. Congress has 30 working days to object. Unless the House or Senate moves to block the shift, the policy could go into effect as soon as mid-April.
Allowing women to serve as regular crew members would shatter a gender barrier that has stood since the U.S. submarine force was created in 1900. The new policy would allow women to serve in cramped quarters while at sea for months at time, a prospect that for years has managed to forestall consideration of such a change.
But lawmakers are unlikely to challenge the shift, congressional officials said. Many Republicans, who would be the most likely opponents, are working to preserve the ban on gays serving openly in the military and would probably not expend time and effort on the issue of female service members in submarines.
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the House intended to conduct an assessment of the change "following its implementation."
The Defense Department's "decision to allow women to serve on submarines will present challenges, but these challenges should not be insurmountable for the Navy," Skelton said.
In the letter to Congress, Gates said the Navy would begin a "phased approach" to allowing women to serve on submarines. Women will probably be allowed first on larger subs.
Women have been able to serve on the military's surface ships since 1993. The following year, the Navy cited high costs of accommodating women on submarines as the reason for not allowing them.
However, today's fleet includes larger vessels with diverse missions that could more easily accommodate women. Larger subs have multiple bathrooms, allowing for gender-specific use, and sleeping areas that could be cordoned off for women.
Congressional officials said they had not been given cost estimates for the shift.
The policy change has been pushed by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former Navy chief of operations. As the Navy chief, Mullen oversaw research on whether women could be accommodated on subs. Last fall, while up for a second term as chairman, Mullen told Congress he supported the change.
Few sailors have voiced objections to changing the rule. Serving on nuclear submarines is considered especially demanding, and the Navy has struggled to attract qualified officers. Many thought that barring women needlessly reduced the pool of qualified prospects.
On a related issue, top Army officials said Tuesday they might reevaluate combat roles for women. Women are restricted from serving in infantry units, but belong to units that have regularly been involved in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I believe that it's time that we take a look at what women are actually doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and look at our policies," said Gen. George W. Casey, the Army chief of staff, appearing before senators.