Washington. -- Here's a paradox: If women are to be assigned to combat units under the same standards as men, there might not be many who qualify to get in, and if the standards are relaxed for women but not men, then by definition the assignment policies are not ''gender neutral.''
In the ongoing rush to equal opportunity, this is the dilemma that Defense Secretary Les Aspin left hanging, unresolved, when he announced recently that women will be allowed to fight in the air, at sea and perhaps soon on land as part of mixed-gender gun crews in Army and Marine Corps artillery outfits.
Mr. Aspin, as usual, was breezily reassuring: ''We know from experience that women can fly our high-performance fighter aircraft. We know from experience that they can perform well in assignments at sea. And we know from Operation Desert Storm that women can stand up to the most demanding environments.''
Evidence to the contrary was compiled by a bipartisan commission appointed last year by President Bush to assess the possible role of women in combat -- a commission, by the way, that brushed aside some of its own evidence in voting to assign women to warships. That decision wasn't based on hard facts but on the urging of its chairman, Robert Herres, a retired Air Force general, who suggested right after his colleagues voted down the notion of women in air and ground combat units that they had better show some flexibility if the report was to have any political credibility.
As for women flying high-performance jets, Navy Lt. John Clagett, a Top Gun instructor, told the commissioners at a hearing in Los Angeles: ''Yes, we do have women flying F-18 [fighters] today [but] . . . they are certainly not flying the F-18s that any of us have flown in the fleet or on combat missions.''
''To compare the missions that they are doing today to what we are doing is like comparing driving on the L.A. Freeway to driving the Indianapolis 500. It's just not the same,'' Lieutenant Clagett declared.
For example, the G, or gravity, forces are much greater in combat, and it takes strong muscles to squeeze blood from the chest and extremities to the brain to avoid loss of consciousness under high-G maneuvers. For this reason, pilots are encouraged to take up weightlifting to increase their muscle mass.
Can women compensate by pumping iron? Perhaps, but Lieutenant Clagett testified that during his tour as a flight instructor, women were not allowed to wash out of pilot training and simply ''were not held to the same standards as males.''
Nor is duty aboard a warship the same as service aboard a Navy auxiliary vessel.
Dudley Carlson, a retired Navy vice admiral, offered the commissioners a few insights. A repair ship like a tender, he said, sits tied up alongside a pier for most of the year.
''It's a factory . . . an 8-to-5 kind of job. And those ships have a lot of women on board, and they do a great job,'' he said.
But a warship at sea is going in harm's way, where the crew has to be prepared to combat fires and flooding caused by hits from enemy weapons, Admiral Carlson warned.
Shipboard damage control is a challenge at the extreme edge of physical strength and endurance, and women may fall short. 1985 Navy study, for example, found that only 1 percent of the service's enlisted women could carry the emergency P-250 water pump, which weighs almost 150 pounds, while 96 percent of the men could unpack and carry it to the scene of a fire or to a flooded compartment.
Billy Willard wrote the commissioners about his experience as an enlisted crewman aboard the amphibious ship Tripoli, when it hit a mine in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.
''I ended up with a split sternum [breast bone] after being thrown into a steam pipe by the mine blast. When I stood up in knee-deep water, sailors were carrying other sailors up ladder[s], through scuttles and hatches to get them out of spaces below the water line,'' he wrote.
''I would have to question whether a female sailor having less . . . strength would able to . . . save a sailor's life. If Tripoli had been a ship with a mixed crew, we may have lost the ship,'' Seaman Willard asserted.
These illustrations point to the central dilemma: If women are expected to carry 150-pound water pumps and take the same G forces as men, a truly gender-neutral assignment policy could well lead to an across-the-board reduction in opportunities for women in the armed forces because many of them lack the needed strength and endurance.
That may be the honest approach, but instead of reducing the number of women, standards may be corrupted to increase their numbers. And any man who points out the erosion of fighting capability of mixed-gender units seems likely to be disdainfully ignored as a lout who would belch during chamber music.
David Evans is military-affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune.