If a new Army project goes according to plan, Patricia Foster should be one of the guys by September.

She and about 40 other women will begin a weight training program next month designed to give them the strength to perform heavy military tasks typically assigned to men.For those running the six-month project, it's not a question of whether women can become as strong as some men but how long it takes before they are.

"My opinion is that women can be as strong as men if they are properly trained," said Foster, 27. "A muscle is a muscle, and it should do the same regardless of gender."

The project - which is using civilians because there aren't enough female enlistees available - is part of Congress' $20 million Defense Women's Health Research Project to prepare women for battle.

Foster and the other women, who range in age from 18 to 32, will train for 11/2 hours, five days a week, for 24 weeks. They will lift weights, climb stairs, run hills and hike with packs weighing up to 75 pounds on their backs.

The reward for this grueling schedule - in addition to a well-conditioned body - is $500 apiece.

"It's the kind of work soldiers would do in the field," said physiologist Peter Frykman. Frykman is running the project at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine with physiologist Everett Harman, who specializes in strength and condi-tioning.

Studies have shown that a woman's upper body strength is roughly 50 percent to 60 percent of a man's, while lower body strength is about 70 percent, Harman said. He believes women could be as strong as many men if they improved their strength by 50 percent.

If that is the case, women should be able to perform as well in the military as male soldiers - both in and out of combat, Har-man said.

The issue, however, is as much about politics as physiology.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew criticism last month for telling college students that women are not meant for battle.

"If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections and they don't have upper body strength," the Georgia Republican said. "I mean some do, but they're relatively rare.

"On the other hand, men are basically little piglets; you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it, it doesn't matter, you know. These things are very real," Gingrich said.

Frykman and Harman agree that women typically weigh less and have more body fat than men, making it difficult for them to achieve the same strength. But they hope that with the proper training, women can come close.

For Foster, the program is a chance to get back into shape nine months after the birth of her baby, Victoria. At 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, Foster says she's out of shape.

The program also presents Foster with a chance to prove to her husband and friends that she is as capable of strenuous physical activity as they are.

Few of the participants consider themselves athletes, Harman said. Many have young children.

And while all the women must be healthy enough to meet the approval of Army doctors, the group represents "a nice reflection of the size and shape of women in America," Frykman said.