In a break with 202 years of tradition, the Navy has proposed assigning women to more than 50 ships of the line.
The first women would be piped aboard for sea duty within 12 months after Congress approves the authorizing legislation. The Navy hopes to see it passed by this coming summer.
Moreover, according to Navy leaders, the skipper of one of the ships designated for male-female integration could well be a woman - once the experiment gains its sea legs.
The idea, set forth in a detailed plan already endorsed by the top admirals, is to manage the billeting on the designated ships so that at least one-fourth of the crew is female. A 50-50 ratio is considered ideal.
Navy leaders want to assign women to seagoing tugs, tenders for submarines and destroyers, and oceanographic research ships. Although those are not combat ships, officials say they demand the full spectrum of seagoing skills.
Up to now, Navy women eager for sea duty have had to settle for harbor craft or hospital ships. The new plan is to let women do everything from tending boilers below deck to running the whole ship as skipper on the bridge.
For the Navy, welcoming women aboard would ease its shortage of skilled and motivated sailors in the fleet.
For the women, going to sea would qualify them for a lot more jobs at a time when the Navy is being accused in Federal court of discriminating against women.
"I'm convinced women can perform well aboard shop," said Capt. Paul Butcher in an interview yesterday. "But we don't know yet how many of them would want to go to sea."
Butcher is the chairman of the women's policy advisory group. He said the Navy, realizing it is sailing in uncharted waters, has commissioned a number of studies to address such questions as:
How would a man feel about his wife serving aboard a ship with other men?
How would a woman feel about her husband sailing with other women?
What proportion of women would volunteer for sea duty if they had the chance?
How many women, after trying sea duty would like it enough to stay in the Navy as a career?
Even if Congress approves the Navy's proposal, it will take time to implement.
Because so few women have been trained to date for seagoing jobs, Butcher said, it will take time to qualify enough of them for duty on each of the 50 to 60 ships planned for integration. However, within 12 months of congressional authorization, the Navy expects to have 500 enlisted women and 60 female officers aboard ships.
By the mid-1980s, Butcher predicted, there will be femal skippers - as shattering as that image might be to Navy traditionalists.
Top personnel admirals have approved the women-to-sea plan. Adm. James L. Holloway Ill. Chief of Naval Operations, has blessed the idea; Navy Secretary W. Graham Claytor has said in the past that he is willing to go so far as to try an all-female ship.
Claytor, deep into the new defense budget, has not approved the specific integration plan recently sent to him. But his past stands indicate approval.
The Navy has about 20,000 enlisted women in its ranks today and plans to raise that number to 30,000 or 40,000 by fiscal 1983, with the higher number needed if the women do go to sea as now envisioned. Women officers would increase from 2,800 to 4,400 or 5100.
For the Navy, recruiting women has proved much easier than recruiting men. Qualified young men will be even harder to find in the future. Butcher said, because of the sharp drop ahead in the nation's total male population aged 18 to 20. More women are seen as an answer to many Navy problems - including unfilled billets and record high desertion.
Currently, federal law forbids women to be "assigned to duty on vessels other than hospital ships and transports." The broadening amendment sought by the Carter administration and now pending in Congress, with action expected next year, would allow women to serve on "hospital ships, transports and vessles of a similar classification not expected to be assigned combat missions."