Aspin to open combat jobs to women Officials say order to cover aircraft, not combat ships

April 28, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Les Aspin plans to order all branches of the military this week to begin putting women in the cockpits of combat aircraft -- including everything from Apache helicopters to B-2 stealth bombers, senior defense officials said yesterday.

And in an effort to clear the way for women to serve on Navy combat ships, he will also announce that the Clinton administration will ask Congress to repeal the long-standing combat exclusion law affecting naval assignments.

Mr. Aspin will not reverse policies that bar women from serving in Army and Marine Corps ground combat units but will order a sweeping review of these and other remaining career barriers to military women, the officials said.

By taking the naval combat issue to Capitol Hill, Mr. Aspin could spark a potentially bruising debate over women in the military later this year at a time when the Clinton administration may have to fight to lift the military's ban on homosexuals, one official conceded.

"You can't rule out that possibility, but the issue here is: Hey, we're doing what Congress wanted us to do about women," said the official, who did not want to be identified.

In 1991, a broad-based coalition in Congress that included Mr. Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, repealed a law banning women from combat cockpits in all the services. But that action, which was opposed by leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not require the military to give women full access to combat aviation assignments and missions.

In his announcement, which could come as soon as today, Mr. Aspin is expected to declare that he cannot approve a recent Navy proposal to open some all-male combat ships to women because a federal law bars Navy and Marine Corps women from serving permanently aboard ships likely to be engaged in combat, officials said.

The Navy was prepared to get around the law by reclassifying some ships as noncombatants.

"The question is whether the Navy can arbitrarily reclassify ships to noncombatant status, which it was ready to do, or do we have to deal with this legislatively?" the official said.

Mr. Aspin is expected to endorse the Navy's package of initiatives for women, including its proposal to put women aboard several classes of combat support ships, which distribute fuel, ammunition and supplies to carrier battle groups.

The Navy also wants to assign women for the first time to P-3C maritime patrol squadrons, which involve armed aircraft that engage in submarine hunting and coastal surveillance, and to place them in command staffs of combat fleets, such as the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean.

Although the fleet is shrinking, "there's no question that the number of opportunities for women in the Navy will grow in the years ahead, and it's important that we do that now," Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, chief of naval operations, said last week.

Earlier this year, the Navy prepared plans to open all combat ships, including aircraft carriers and submarines, and fighter squadrons to women within four years, but Mr. Aspin's office asked the Navy brass to consider taking a modest step instead.

"Congress already has said the issue's too tough to deal with, now it's over to you," the defense official said. "So we'll send legislation back to Congress to debate. Hey, that's what they wanted us to do."

The Navy has already trained women to fly carrier-based aircraft and Navy officials said they could begin giving women permanent combat assignments soon. The New York Times reported today that Air Force officials said they would immediately begin training about 10 female fighter and bomber pilots, who could be assigned to squadrons as early as February. A senior Army officer told the Times that women could be flying Apache helicopter gunships within a year. The Marine Corps, which has no female aviators, must start from scratch.

When he makes his announcement, Mr. Aspin probably will raise concerns about "fiscal responsibility" and the ultimate cost of converting the Navy's entire combat fleet to accommodate women, a second defense official said.

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