"Imagine 150 fraternity brothers packed into a container the size of a three-bedroom house. Announce you are breaking hallowed traditions by taking away their cigarettes and admitting women. Then lock the doors and push the container deep into the sea, for months at a time.

That's what the Navy, after decades of contemplation and controversy, has decided to do with its Submarine Force, an elite fraternity of 13,000 active-duty sailors that has been patrolling the oceans for 110 years.

As of Dec. 31, smoking aboard the entire submarine fleet will be summarily banned -- no small hardship for the estimated 35 to 40 percent of sailors who are nicotine addicts and can't exactly step outside whenever they want a puff.

Barring intervention by Congress in the next few days, the Navy has also said it intends to let women join submarine crews by the end of 2011, a move that isn't going over well with many active-duty and veteran members of the Silent Service, the stealthy nickname of the force.

On top of all that, the military is girding for another social revolution that might take some getting used to inside the cheek-to-jowl confines of submarines: allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the ranks.

"The Silent Service is right now very much a boys' club," said Joe Buff, a military commentator and the author of six pulp fiction thrillers involving submarine adventures. "They're always bellyaching, and they always hate change. But I think the men are going to be better at all these changes than they're willing to let on." ...