For the first time in a half-century, the Pentagon is significantly scaling back a women's advisory panel, a move that has been received with hope, skepticism and downright disappointment.

According to Lt. Col. James Cassella, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already approved a revised charter for the 51-year-old Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, and expects to appoint 34 new panel members soon.

Cassella said the panel's annual budget will be reduced to $520,000 from $673,000 and the panel will be asked to plan less elaborate biannual conferences. The Pentagon will also spend less money sending large delegations on overseas missions, and eliminate the 30 or so in-service liaisons to the panel.

He insisted that the measure would serve to enhance the role of the panel rather than diminish it.

"The new charter provides for the undersecretary of defense (of personnel and readiness) a new focus on the issues we feel are more important as we move into the 21st century," Cassella said.

The changes drew swift criticism from Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., a former Air Force officer and DACOWITS advocate.

"Based on what I've seen, I fear that the committee will be a shadow of what it once was. This is unfair to our servicewomen and unwise for the Department of Defense," Wilson said Wednesday.

Opponents of the panel also say the new orders go in the wrong direction. They suggest DACOWITS be eliminated altogether.

"This is an activist group with an activist agenda. I don't see how revitalizing DACOWITS does anything to fix that problem. What happens 10 years from now when we have a different administration?" asked Charmaine Yoest, a government studies fellow at the University of Virginia who this month co-authored "Booby Traps at the Pentagon" for the Women's Quarterly with her husband Jack Yoest.

Critics have long held that DACOWITS is a tool for radical feminists who use the panel to advance a politically correct agenda that hurts military readiness.

They complain that since Congress allowed women — who make up 15 percent of the Armed Forces — on combat ships and aircraft in 1990, the panel has run rampant, pushing for women in submarines, on special operations helicopters and at Marine Corps basic training.

"Its agenda — which promotes gender quotas, women in combat roles, and gender-integrated basic training — weakens the basic purpose of the military: to fight and win wars," said Nancy M. Pfotenhauer, president of the Independent Women's Forum, in a statement before Rumsfeld signed off on the changes.

Cassella denied that the new charter reflects political pressure from outside groups. "I'm not going tit-for-tat with any critics on either side of the issue," he said. "They had a 50-year-old charter and they needed to look at it."

He also downplayed reports Wednesday that the Pentagon will move women away from combat as part of the charter changes, and is firing all leftover panel members from the Clinton administration.

"There's no changes anticipated to that. There are women flying combat missions over Afghanistan as we speak," he said.

As for the Clinton appointees, Cassella said all 34 members' tenures expired when the charter expired last week, not just those appointed during the previous administration. New members will be selected based on military experience and background, he added. A majority of panel members have traditionally been lawyers and academics.

Cassella said the leaner and meaner DACOWITS translates into better assistance for women since panel members will be able to visit large installations at the Pentagon's expense and get a broader scope of women's issues, particularly quality of life issues for servicewomen and their families.

Up until now, panel members were paying their own way as they visited local bases, Cassella said.