As the Navy brass prepares for a “co-ed” submarine force, they might consider the impact of human biology on other elements of the service.

Navy Times reports that some shore commands in Norfolk, Virginia are heavily staffed by pregnant sailors, and some commanders are complaining about the lack of proper manning to carry out their missions.

The problem–and leadership complaints–resulted in an investigation by the Navy IG. According to the IG report, some of shore-based organizations in the Norfolk area have pregnant sailors in up to 34% of their billets. And due to restrictions associated with their medical condition, the sailors (in many cases) cannot perform all of their assigned duties, placing an added strain on shore commands.

The IG has asked Navy personnel officials to review the new rules for Navy mothers-to-be and consider the work conducted by each rating and how pregnancy affects a sailor’s ability to do that work.

The spike in pregnant sailors assigned to some units comes after the Navy changed its rules for handling mothers-to-be. And it’s compounded by a baby boomlet in the Navy community.

When sailors on sea duty become pregnant, they are transferred to shore-based commands that fit certain criteria, such as being close to a Navy medical center. The length of that assignment changed in June 2007, when the Navy extended the postpartum tour from four months after a child’s birth to 12 months. Combined with a nine-month pregnancy, that puts expectant mothers on limited duty for up to 21 months.

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Now, shore industrial and aviation commands say they are receiving more pregnant sailors — from 15 percent to 34 percent of authorized billets, in some cases — who are unable to fulfill essential duties because of their pregnancy, according to the IG.

“If pregnancy trends remain constant, the new pregnancy distribution policy could have over 2,500 sailors counting against shore duty commands in ratings where they are not able to conduct mission-essential work within industrial or hazardous material-type conditions,” the IG report, based on a site visit to Hampton Roads, Va., in March and April, concludes.

But the impact is felt far beyond shore installations. As the Times article indicates, many sailors move to shore duty after becoming pregnant. That means that male sailors (or non-pregnant females) wind up filling the ship billets vacated by the mother-to-be. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t indicate how many of the females in Norfolk-area shore commanders were transferred from sea duty after discovering they were pregnant.

Talk to Navy officers and senior NCOs and you’ll get a real earful on the effects of this problem. While acknowledging that many female sailors are simply trying to balance a naval career against their desire to start a family, others are gaming the system, they say. In some cases, they say female sailors become pregnant to avoid a projected deployment, or get out of an assignment they don’t like.

Years ago, sailors who became pregnant while on active duty were immediately dismissed from the service. By comparison, today’s family-friendly Navy goes to great lengths to accommodate pregnant sailors, and there’s not much a Captain or Master Chief can do except grit their teeth and suck it up.

You’d think the IG report would offer a cautionary tale for the submarine force and its plan for mixed-gender crews. Running an attack boat or a boomer takes an exceptionally well-trained, cohesive team of officers and enlisted members. Simply stated, the silent service can’t afford the kind of turnover caused by pregnancies in other Navy organizations.

But such concerns are being ignored in the rush to break down one last bastion of male service. Sub skippers and Chiefs of the Boat know what’s on the way, but speaking out would be a career killer. If the IG’s findings are any indication, we’ll soon be reading about training, turnover and reliability problems in the sub fleet, thanks to female crew members who decided to get pregnant.

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