Air Force limiting air-combat roles of women Move alarms women's advocates

April 07, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Even as the Navy anticipates opening the first combat assignments to women, the Air Force is preparing to exclude them from flight training needed to qualify for combat missions, according to defense officials and Air Force documents.

Under a plan that takes effect in June, the Air Force will no longer give any beginning female pilot instruction in supersonic jets and air combat tactics. Such training is now offered to all student pilots even though the Air Force prohibits women from flying combat fighters and bombers.

Instead, women would be limited to training in slower, subsonic planes, regardless of their skill or aptitude. The service also intends to stop allowing women to serve as supersonic jet flight instructors, preferring to use experienced combat pilots, all of whom are men.

The Air Force plan has alarmed women's advocates inside and outside the Pentagon who want all military jobs open to qualified women as soon as possible. While women were barred from flying combat missions during the Persian Gulf War, a small group of Air Force women flew tanker, cargo and reconnaissance aircraft in the combat zone.

"We already have women who are not able to pursue a career path they're qualified for. You have people being told you have nowhere to go from here," said Lt. Col. Kelly Hamilton, an Air Force KC-135 refueling pilot who was the military's most senior female pilot in the gulf war. "Under the new program, they'll say you're not qualified because you don't have the training.

"The concern I have as an aviator is that people are going to be cut out of the loop. It's called clearing the decks, really."

Two knowledgeable defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Air Force efforts to change pilot training already have forced Defense Secretary Les Aspin to delay granting a Navy request to open combat cockpits to women until he can devise a new equal opportunity policy for female aviators in all branches of the military.

"Aviation is not just a Navy decision," said one official. "The Air Force is going the wrong way, and that's going to drive how fast the Navy can go."

The Sun reported last week that the Navy had devised sweeping plans to open all naval combat jobs to women but was forced by defense personnel officials to scale back a proposal sent to Mr. Aspin last month.

The Navy now intends to make an initial change in policy that would open at least six classes of all-male combat ships to women and assignments to the headquarters of Navy combat fleets.

Defense officials disclosed that the revised Navy proposal also seeks approval to assign women pilots for the first time to P-3C maritime patrol squadrons, which involve armed aircraft that engage in submarine hunting and coastal surveillance.

But the Navy has been forced to strike jobs in combat attack squadrons from its request to Mr. Aspin because the service was told flatly that any major changes in combat aviation would have to be made across the military.

The Navy and Air Force plans are pressuring Mr. Aspin to take up the issue of combat exclusion when his schedule is already taxed by controversies over gays in the military, budget cuts, base closings and looming military action in the Balkans.

Mr. Aspin, who as a congressman worked successfully in 1991 to remove the ban on women in combat aviation, is expected to approve the Navy's proposal and then issue a military-wide directive affecting women pilots in the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps. Although Congress lifted the ban, it did not require the services to treat men and women equally.

Mr. Aspin indicated his willingness to put women into combat cockpits and aboard most combat ships at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week, but gave no clue about how soon.

Bob Hall, the Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that Mr. Aspin "wants to look aggressively at this," adding that the defense secretary would try to "pre-empt any problem" affecting women's training opportunities for combat aircraft. Mr. Hall declined to be more specific about the timing.

But Rep. Patricia A. Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat who has led congressional efforts to reverse combat exclusion laws and policies, appealed to Mr. Aspin last week to act quickly.

"They're limiting more and more of the entry-level [aviation] positions to women," Ms. Schroeder said. "I hope they open them all up soon," she said of combat jobs. "To have invested in women and then to throw them overboard doesn't make sense."

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