WASHINGTON -- Seeking to reverse long-standing policies that relegate women to second-class status, the Navy has asked the Clinton administration to open the first military combat assignments to women in the next few months, senior defense officials said yesterday.
The Navy plan would allow women to serve aboard at least six classes of combat support ships, but not on larger combatants such as aircraft carriers, cruisers or submarines.
Although one official familiar with the details called the plan a "modest" first step, he said the Navy has already readied additional proposals to open all other naval combat jobs -- including duty on aircraft carriers, submarines and fighter squadrons -- to women within four years.
Many women go to sea now, but only on 66 of the Navy's more than 450 ships and not aboard combat ships. They serve on tenders and repair and salvage ships, many of which spend much of their time in port.
In the long run, officials hope, the secretary of the Navy -- a post the White House has yet to fill -- will be authorized to set a timetable that would allow women to serve for the first time aboard Trident ballistic missile submarines, operate Tomahawk cruise missile launchers and fly combat patrols from carriers.
The Navy initiative, taken without prompting from Congress or a White House order to change combat exclusion rules, is likely to isolate the other services on questions of equal rights in the military for women and homosexuals -- and whether any group should be excluded from combat units, senior Navy officials said.
By moving to abolish "second-class citizenship" for Navy women, the service would be hard pressed to justify "devising a new second class of people -- gays," a Navy official said in a recent interview.
Some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have promoted the idea of barring avowed homosexuals from combat assignments to encourage gay troops to keep quiet about their sexual orientation.
"No one in the Navy would sign up for that now," the Navy official said. "Any combat exclusion law affects careers. Look, if women or gays can't be submarine-qualified, they can't go to sea and can't get promoted."
A knowledgeable defense official who insisted on anonymity said that Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, the chief of naval operations and acting Navy secretary, was prepared to seek administration backing for a single sweeping policy change that would open all naval combat jobs to women. But defense personnel officials advised him to take a gradual, more cautious approach.
"It has to be evolutionary," the defense official said. "One of the considerations is you don't want to go too far too fast. You don't want to put someone in a position where they could fail. It's still a major change, a large step forward."
The Navy proposal puts pressure on the administration to endorse more sweeping changes, though Mr. Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin have never expressed support for lifting all combat restrictions against women.
During last year's campaign, Mr. Clinton said only that he would wait for the recommendations of a presidential commission studying the issue. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. Aspin backed a successful congressional effort in May 1991 to repeal a law banning women from flying combat missions, but that action did not require the military to give women full access to combat flying jobs.
The presidential commission ultimately voted Nov. 3 to recommend only that women be permitted to serve aboard combat ships, except for submarines and amphibious ships. It also urged Congress to restore the legal ban on women in combat aircraft. But its recommendations languished after George Bush was defeated.
When he appeared before the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Mr. Aspin signaled his willingness to put female pilots in fighter and bomber cockpits and endorsed the commission's limited stand on assigning women to combat ships.
"I would think that basically, to give a little heads up, we're probably going to accept the commission's report . . . of course with the possible exception of the combat aircraft," he said, adding that the panel issued a "pretty good report."
But Mr. Aspin gave no timetable for a policy change and no clue that the Navy had already prepared far more sweeping proposals.
The initial plan, in a memorandum called "It's Time," proposes allowing Navy women to serve aboard at least six classes of combat support ships and on the command staffs of Navy combat fleets, such as the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean and the 7th Fleet in Japan, said defense officials familiar with its contents.
The most prominent classes of ships named in the memo are fast combat support ships -- which distribute fuel, ammunition and supplies to carrier battle groups -- and replenishment oilers. Both types of ships typically are equipped with CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters and, for self-defense, Sea Sparrow missiles and Phalanx radar-guided guns.
Barbara Spyridon Pope, a former assistant Navy secretary for manpower in the Bush administration, said in an interview that Navy women would need 18 months to three years to acquire the qualifications and training needed to get certain sea-duty assignments. But she said the administration would be wiser to open all naval combat ship and aviation jobs soon "to start growing people and develop their talents."
Ms. Pope was chairwoman of an ad hoc committee on Navy women in the wake of the scandal over the 1991 Tailhook Convention, during which women were groped and jeered at by Navy aviators at a Las Vegas hotel.
Ms. Pope's committee recommended in early January to Sean O'Keefe, then the Navy secretary, that all naval combat jobs be opened to women except for those likely to involve "hand-to-hand combat," including Navy SEALS special operations teams.
Mr. O'Keefe endorsed the proposal in a Jan. 6 speech at the Naval Academy, saying, "I believe we should expand the role of women in combat in all the armed forces, including permitting women to fly combat missions, as well as serve in all Navy ships."
Although he emphasized that he was only expressing his personal opinion, Mr. O'Keefe set into motion the final planning to include women at all levels of post-Cold War naval operations. He and Dick Cheney, then then defense secretary, agreed to leave the issue for the next administration, however, current and former Navy officials said.
"All of this grew out of Tailhook," Ms. Pope said. "As we looked at assimilation and integration of women, combat exclusions and how we do business, it was clear women had been made to feel like second-class citizens.
"Some things are still around out of tradition and practice. In the post-Cold War era, the military -- and I mean all the services -- has not redefined the meaning of combat."