WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Wednesday to lift a ban against women flying combat missions for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and to create a commission to study the overall issue of women in combat.
The twin actions preceded a major debate during consideration of the $291 billion defense bill on whether to embark on a program of missile defenses in the Strategic Defense Initiative, or 'Star Wars' program, that might require renegotation of a nearly 20-year-old treaty limiting the missile defenses of both the United States and Soviet Union.
After three hours of debate, senators voted 96-3 to create the commission. Then on a voice vote they approved the amendment repealing the law prohibiting Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps women from piloting warplanes in combat. The law did not cover Army women, but Army regulations prohibit women from flying helicopters in combat.
'This is a very major victory for women,' said Sen. William Roth, R-Del., who with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., wrote the amendment lifting the air combat prohibition.
'This is about as clear a statement of what the Senate of the United States wants as you can get around here,' said Kennedy, whose measure does not direct the services to start letting women fly in combat squadrons, but carries with it a strong suggestion that they do so.
The House's version of the bill authorizes the Air Force and Navy to waive the law, if they wish, to permit women to fly combat missions. Differences between the two versions of the defense bill must be resolved by a conference committee.
The amendment to create special presidential commission on the issue also would let the commission ask the Pentagon to lift the legal prohibition and administrative policies covering the Army. It would allow the Pentagon to act on its own to lift the restructions for the duration of the commission's study. It would report by Nov. 15, 1992.
The commission plan was written by Sens. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and John McCain, R-Arz., both former fighter pilots.
Glenn said the approach he promoted would provide 'the greatest opportunity to the greatest number of women. ... This treats all women in the military equally. ... It does not prejudge the outcome.'
There are 222,839 women in the nation's 2,034,000-member armed forces. Some 35,000 women served in the Persian Gulf War in which 11 died during the war itself, five of them in combat. Two women were taken prisoner and released unharmed.
Women fly as test pilots in top-line U.S. jet fighters, train U.S. combat pilots, and fly the huge transports and tankers and various other aircraft in the U.S. inventory.
They command and serve on some support ships. They work in combat support units in the Army and Marine Corps, but service policy, notlaw, bars them from units most likely to encounter close-quarter combat, such as infantry, artillery and armored units.
Women officers have complained that being unable to fly combat missions has effectively placed a 'glass ceiling' on their promotion potential.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said Roth and Kennedy's effort would affect only one half of 1 percent of the women in the armed forces, and that an approach that affected all women in uniform was fairer.
'This is everything -- air, sea and ground. ... This is living and dying on the battlefield,' argued Glenn seeking votes for his position. 'This is equal opportunity in the military, not just in the realm of pilots.'
A recent Newsweek poll said 63 percent of Americans are in favor of letting women fly combat missions.
'Congress should wake up and lift the ban and let the Pentagon do its job. The amendment before us today would remove this outdated law,' said Roth.
'We do not need a commission to study the issue. A commission will not tell us anything we do not already know about the performance of women pilots in battle,' Roth added.
Kennedy called the 43-year-old law barring women from combat jobs in the Air Force and Navy 'archaic and Neanderthal.'
The defense bill, which authorizes Pentagon programs in the coming fiscal year, includes four more of the controversial B-2 bombers, money for additional F-117A stealth fighters and additional anti-mine warfare systems to follow up on the fact that U.S. capabilities were inadequate during the Gulf War.
put xwa00255 m. to ngd mcneill: Lifting the ban on women in Navy air combat operations would not affect Marine aviation without an action by the commandant. Marines, who sometimes fly off Navy carriers, also must be qualified for ground combat and that prohibition also would have to be waived for women to fly Marine aircraft in combat.