WASHINGTON — In a move that reflects reassessments under way in the Pentagon and in Congress, the Navy on Monday announced that it will open a wide range of new jobs to women and will increase efforts to combat sexual harassment against female sailors.
Although the new assignment policy would open about 10,000 posts aboard logistics ships and some aircraft to enlisted women and officers, it is intended to keep women out of combat.
"This represents to me, in naval terms, about as far as you can go," Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr. said in detailing the new initiative. Military assignments are restricted by a 1948 law that bars putting women in combat situations.
Based on 4-Month Study
The new policy is the result of a four-month study commissioned by Webb and was announced just three days after Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.), chairman of a House panel on military personnel, introduced a bill to establish a two-year test program that would open a broader range of non-combat military jobs to women.
Webb said the Navy study concluded that women should be allowed to serve aboard about 26 of the combat support ships from which they have been barred. Those ships include refueling vessels, ammunition ships and supply units that shuttle between battle groups rather than sailing continuously with one.
Women will also be permitted to fly on some of the Navy's land-based P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft, in addition to the cargo, support and training aircraft on which they are already authorized to serve.
Webb said the study included an "emotionally charged" series of meetings in which women "very forcefully" expressed their opinions.
Women officers have complained that restrictions on their assignments were hindering their career advancement. Rear Adm. Ralph West, who directed the Navy study, noted that many of the Navy's "bright, hard-charging women officers" would elect to serve in combat posts if the service permitted it.
The Navy study found also that sexual harassment is the most common complaint of female sailors, with more than half of the 1,400 Navy women interviewed indicating that they had been victims of such harassment. Webb said that, as a result of the finding, he will order an increase in training programs designed to "sensitize" male Navy personnel to the problem.
Webb, who said during his confirmation hearings last April that he is "absolutely opposed" to placing women in combat roles, said he believes it will take years to open up the expanded range of jobs to women and noted, "You will no doubt see some mixed reviews" from skippers, who must refit their ships' bathroom and bunking areas.
5,220 Women on Ships
Currently, the Navy has 5,220 women assigned to 86 ships, mostly salvage and rescue ships, tugboats, repair ships and tenders. Since 1978, the Navy has contended that including other ships or aircraft would put women personnel at too great a risk of combat action.
Although women have pressed for posts on more types of ships, Webb said they have resisted efforts to assign them to so-called non-traditional specialties, such as boiler technicians, welders and machinist's mates.
"They don't want to be social guinea pigs," said Webb, who noted that the Navy has been able to fill only 5,000 of 6,000 slots set aside for women in traditionally male Navy specialties.
Women on AF Planes
The Air Force and the Army also are conducting reviews of their application of the combat exclusion rule for women. In the last three years, the Air Force has opened a number of jobs to women on reconnaissance and refueling aircraft and permitted women to serve in the launching centers of the Minuteman and MX missiles.
Webb said the Marine Corps, which traditionally has had the lowest proportion of jobs open to women, is preparing a report that may lead to changes similar to the Navy's new effort.