Defense Secretary Les Aspin will order the military services to allow women to fly in combat aircraft and also will seek places for women on most Navy combat ships, where they are now barred, Pentagon officials said last night.

The decision to allow women to fly Air Force and Navy fighters, bombers and other combat aircraft -- such as Army helicopter gunships -- will be announced by Aspin on Thursday, defense officials said. Congress repealed the ban on women in combat cockpits in 1991, but the Pentagon has yet to act on the change in legislation.

Defense officials said Aspin also would ask Congress to end its ban on women on Navy warships, enacted just after World War II, although Aspin is likely to continue to keep women from serving on submarines. Women now serve on a variety of combat support vessels but are prohibited from assignment to destroyers, aircraft carriers and other fighting vessels.

In addition, officials said, Aspin will ask the Army and Marine Corps to justify the continuing exclusion of women from ground infantry units, although they indicated that Aspin had not yet decided whether women should serve in those roles.

"I think it's reasonable to open up opportunities to people who are hard working and have all the skills," a defense official said last night. Aspin's decision was first reported in today's editions of The New York Times.

An administration official pointed out that President Clinton as a candidate had approved "the general proposition" of lifting restrictions against women serving in combat roles in the military. The official said that Clinton "has approved moving forward on this front" but also has raised "some specific concerns" about how the action will be implemented that the official did not outline last night.

The decision marks a major social milestone for a military that long has resisted efforts to open combat roles to women. As recently as last week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak said publicly that were he given the choice between flying with a well-qualified woman and a less-qualified man, he would pick the latter. Marine Corps Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr. said last week that the service was not looking to find additional roles for women. "The Marine Corps feels very good about the opportunities for women that we offer," he said at a news conference.

But several factors have worked against the continuing exclusion of women from combat roles, most notably the 1991 Persian Gulf War in which the distinction between combat and noncombat duty was often blurred. A U.S. servicewoman serving on a helicopter was shot down and captured; another driving a truck also was captured. Several servicewomen died when an Iraqi Scud missile slammed into a U.S. military barracks.

Congressional action to roll back the cockpit ban was accompanied by creation of a presidential commission to study whether women should be allowed in combat roles. The commission recommended last fall that women should be allowed to serve on most Navy warships but not in combat aviation roles, a compromise position that infuriated advocates of expanded military opportunities for women.

Aspin supported the 1991 legislation and in that respect his decision to lift the combat aviation ban follows directly from his earlier positions. But officials said he was motivated to act now because of confusion over inconsistent policies in the Air Force and Navy with regard to women in combat and because the Clinton administration is eager to move on from the controversy over lifting the ban on gays in the military.

"It gets you away from worrying about homosexuals," said an Air Force official familiar with the plan.

But others said it was possible that Aspin's directive could engender further resentment in a military already pressed by reduced opportunities and funding in a world without a Cold War adversary.

The official said that "I don't think {giving women combat roles is} controversial at all. I think its time has come. It makes sense and nobody's going to fight it."

The Air Force has come under fire recently for a plan to change its training program for pilots in a way that would effectively prevent women from flying high-performance aircraft.

The Navy, on the other hand, has been trying recover from the Tailhook sexual assault scandal in part by expanding opportunities for women on ships and aircraft. But under current conditions there likely would be fewer slots for women as time goes on. As the Navy trims its fleet in a post-Cold War world, a disproportionate share of the reductions are occurring in the combat support ships of the type that women can serve on.

Aspin has said in recent weeks that the services ought to maintain a "consistent" policy toward women.

An Air Force official said last night that there are about 300 women who are technically eligible for combat aviation slots in that service. But he said most of them probably would not get an opportunity to fly combat missions because they are already too advanced in their careers to make the transition.

The official also emphasized that McPeak's comments last week on women reflected his personal views only, and that he did not object to Aspin's decision and was fully prepared to implement it. "I think the Air Force sees this coming and they're prepared to get on board," another defense official said.

The official said that although Aspin's plan is "not quite finished," it is "reasonable" to assume that it also would allow women to fly Army and Marine combat helicopters.

The official also suggested that on the question of women aboard combat ships, Aspin's views are consistent with the commission's recommendations that women should be allowed everywhere except on submarines and amphibious warships.

Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.