Delays and secrecy surrounding a new review of women in the Army have raised fears in some quarters that the long-awaited study will be used to curtail their role.

A Pentagon advisory panel on women has written a "strongly worded" letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger asking why the study has taken so long. The Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues also has written Weinberger, demanding to know why the study will be classified.

The Army had said the study was so important that it was capping the number of women troops below goals set by the Carter administration until the review was completed. Yet in April it made a major policy change involving women soldiers--eliminating coed basic training--without waiting for the report.

That decision has fueled suspicions among women critics of the Army that the report will be used to justify rolling back recruitment levels and closing some military jobs to women.

The Army, including the officer in charge of the study, refused to comment about the review. Speaking for the Army, Margaret Tackley said any comments would be "premature and speculative."

The review group, currently headed by Brig. Gen. Ronald W. Zeltman, was told in May, 1981, to examine "the physical strength and stamina of the female soldier, the probability of the female soldier engaging in direct combat, the impact on readiness of the increasing female content, including such issues as pregnancy and parenthood and issues such as sexual harassment, socialization and leadership." The group was then supposed to recommend how many women should serve in the Army and in what jobs.

The "assessment," as the Army calls it, was ordered after field commanders complained that the Army had increased the number of female soldiers without fully understanding the impact of that decision.

In 1973, the Army had 12,000 enlisted women, mostly in clerical and nursing jobs. That number remained relatively stable until 1977, when the Army opened all but 34 of its 337 occupational specialties to women.

The Carter administration made that move, in part because the Army did not expect to be able to fill quotas for the All-Vounteer Army by relying solely on men. By the start of 1981, the Army had reached the current level of 65,000 female troops, a more than five-fold increase in eight years. It was well on the way to reaching its year-end goal of 69,000 when the Army imposed the cap in May, 1981.

But lately the Army has had little trouble filling its quotas without women, partly as a result of the recession and partly because of a decision to do more recruiting in the suburbs and improve educational benefits. The service stopped recruiting for this fiscal year in July and started stockpiling volunteers for fiscal 1983.

"The dragging out of the Army study . . . is having a very definite negative effect on the morale of our military women," said Maria Elena Torralva, chairman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, which advises the Pentagon on women's issues and wrote to Weinberger about the delays. "Morale is going down, down, down."

"I think women have good reason to fear what this report will say," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues with Rep. Margaret Heckler (R-Mass.). "The decision to classify this report gives them all the more reason to think it must be negative."

In a letter to a task force working with the study group, Zeltman said the Army had "no hidden intent" in doing its assessment. He said the review had been conducted in secrecy because he wanted "to solve the institutional issues within the institution--the Army." He added that the report would be classified because it would deal with military readiness.

Privately, the Army has tried to reassure critics that the study will be objective and will not recommend a reduced role for women, Torralva said. But, she added, "The Army has not been honest with us before."

Torralva noted that Army officials had said there would be no major policy changes involving women until the study was finished, but in April it announced it was ending its four-year-old policy of mixing male platoons with female platoons for basic training.

At the time, officials said that change was necessary because "the differences in average strength levels between men and women often resulted in the men not being fully physically challenged during training exercises."

Sharon Lord, deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity and safety, recently went public to criticize the way the Army had made that decision.

"No one provided any data that showed integrated training was not successful," Lord was quoted in the Army Times newspaper. "I was alarmed that we would make a major change without data. The Army should have provided that."

Lord said the decision should have been based on the women's study. "The report ought to be out now to justify any changes for women," she said.

The decision "smacks of the old argument of 'separate but equal.' It looks like a decision was made that implies women aren't performing well," Lord said.

If the Army can make a decision like that without any data, Torralva contended, why should female soldiers believe that its women's report will be based upon objective data--especially if the Army keeps that data secret?

Several members of a task force appointed to help Zeltman's review group claim that they have also been kept in the dark. "I felt like the task force was all show for the Army," said Nancy Goldman, a member from Chicago.

Zeltman recently wrote them, saying that the study has already given direction to some Army efforts on behalf of women. He said it is working to provide training to curb sexual harassment, develop pregnancy prevention training, revise nutritional standards and plan better obstetric-gynecological care.

Zeltman said the review group was currently classifying all 303 jobs now open to women by their "physical demands" so that the Army can determine whether women are strong enough to do them. But he did not say whether women would be barred from any of those jobs or whether recruitment levels would be reduced.