ON the bridge of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, Rear Adm. Roland Guilbault acknowledges that the last barriers to women serving on Navy ships will inevitably fall, perhaps ``in 10 to 12 years.'' But the fact is, such barriers are already crumbling.
It was a female United States Navy pilot who recently landed civilian visitors on the Forrestal's deck. She is barred by law from serving on a combat ship. But because she is stationed ashore with the carrier's transport aircraft, the Navy gracefully circumvents the restriction, allowing it to utilize her talent for carrier landings.
Below the Forrestal's decks, women ``airplane captains'' were at work, side by side with male counterparts, performing preflight checks on combat aircraft. When the Forrestal drew alongside the replenishment ship Neosho next morning, a woman crew member was visible on the Neosho's bridge.
Despite such changes, career Navy men like Admiral Guilbault find it difficult to imagine how a future Navy will deal with the challenges of male and female sailors serving together on combat ships.
``This carrier spent 108 days in the Indian Ocean last year without making a port call,'' Guilbault says. ``Can you imagine what it would have been like to have 300 women aboard? What do you think that would have done to the morale of the families back home?''
But the implication that shipboard discipline would necessarily falter, along with morale and morals, are arguments rejected by many of the Navy's female sailors. Navy women, responding to such objections in the US Naval Institute Proceedings (the Navy's professional journal), say families concerned about morals of servicemen should be most concerned about port calls - especially at the Navy's Subic Bay base in the Philippines.
Still, the view from the bridge of the Forrestal as it steams serenely off the Virginia Capes, belies the changes shaking the Navy's traditions.
Young sailors, most of them still teen-agers, scurry around the Forrestal's flight deck launching and recovering F-14 ``Tomcat'' fighters with precision that makes the dangerous operation seem easy. The scene probably looks much the same as when their grandfathers launched aircraft from World War II carriers.
But if war arose, the scenes aboard such ships could change in a hurry. At least two of the women working aboard the Forrestal are Navy reservists performing their annual two weeks of active duty for training. They are part of the Navy's increasing dependence on reservists, a shift that may bring substantial numbers of women aboard combat as well as support ships in the coming decade.
With the end of the draft in the 1970s, and the 1980s pursuit of a 600-ship Navy, recruitment pressures have forced a dependence on reserves that the peacetime Navy has long avoided.
The Naval Reserve, in turn, has been able to maintain its assigned strength only by recruiting women. The result is that women now form an increasingly important part of the augmentation crews needed to bring the Navy to wartime strength.