Marine Corps, Army chiefs oppose ending 'don't ask' this year

Leaders say ending the ban on openly gay troops now would distract forces from combat training and operations.

Providing fuel for GOP arguments against repealing the 1993 law prohibiting openly gay individuals from serving in the military, two of its most senior officers Friday told senators overturning the gay ban this year would be disruptive to the combat force.

The four-star chiefs of the Marine Corps and Army raised concerns about the White House's goal to enact a repeal of the law this year, arguing that doing so would only add more stress to heavily deployed forces. Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz, meanwhile, said the military will need until 2012 to implement the full integration of openly gay men and women into his service.

The testimony from members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff comes three days after the Pentagon released a report detailing the findings in a nearly 10-month review of the impact a repeal of the law would have on the armed forces and how best to implement the change. The review found that between 40 percent and 60 percent of troops in all-male ground combat units have concerns about repealing the law, even though that figure drops to roughly 30 percent when taking into account the views of all military personnel who responded to a Pentagon survey.

As expected, Marine Corps Commandant James Amos came out most strongly against the repeal, asserting that about 45 percent of Marines surveyed by the Pentagon said allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would hurt unit effectiveness, readiness and cohesion.

"If the law is changed, successfully implementing repeal and assimilating openly homosexual Marines into the tightly woven fabric of our combat units has strong potential for disruption at the small unit level, as it will no doubt divert leadership attention away from an almost singular focus of preparing units for combat," Amos said during the second of two days of hearings on the issue before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The four-star commandant said the Marine Corps could implement a repeal of the law, if necessary. But he stressed that should not begin until Marines are not focused as heavily on combat operations as they are now.

"This is a social issue across our country. It has transcended into becoming a political issue," Amos said. "All I'm asking is the opportunity to do that at a time of our choosing when my Marines aren't singularly, tightly focused on what they're doing in a very deadly environment."

In comments somewhat milder than Amos' statements, Gen. George Casey. the Army chief of staff, told the committee a repeal would amount to a "major cultural and policy change" in the middle of war and would be more difficult to implement than the Pentagon's survey suggests. But he said that, "if properly implemented, I do not envision that it would keep us from accomplishing our worldwide missions - including combat operations."

"The question for me, as I've said, is one of timing," Casey said. "I would not recommend going forward at this time given everything the Army has on its plate."

Schwartz said he does not agree with the study's conclusions that the short-term risk to the military's effectiveness is low. Rather than ending the ban in the coming months, the Air Force chief said he would rather push off the full implementation of a repeal until 2012, which would allow for any training and education that would be necessary.

"Even while the demands of close combat affect relatively few airmen in contrast to personnel of the other services, I remain concerned with the outlook for low short-term risk of repeal to military effectiveness in Afghanistan," Schwartz told the panel.

The joint chiefs' comments clearly put them at odds with Pentagon leadership, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs, who argue that a repeal would not be as traumatic for the military as some might think. Their testimony also could strengthen Republican resolve to block Senate floor action during the lame duck on the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill, which the Senate Armed Services Committee approved with a provision that would require the White House and Pentagon to certify that repealing the law will not affect unit cohesion, military readiness or troop morale. The repeal would take effect 60 days after certification.

The House passed identical language in May, but the defense measure has been stalled for months in the Senate amid concerns about "don't ask, don't tell" and other issues.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed to senators Thursday to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" by the end of the year, arguing that lawmakers must act quickly if they hope to lift the gay ban before the courts take a more abrupt approach to ending the policy.

Schwartz acknowledged Gates' concerns about court action and said he endorses Gates' advice that legislative action is preferable because it would give the military more time to prepare troops for a change in law. "Precipitous repeal is not where your Armed Forces wants to be," he said.

Gates has refused to speculate on how long he believes the repeal of the law would take to implement. But he said Friday he would not sign off on the certification until any training is completed and the service chiefs - many of whom have expressed reservations about allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly -- are comfortable that lifting the ban would not have an affect on unit cohesion or combat effectiveness.

Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead agreed the military needs to proceed cautiously on the issue, but he stood apart from the other service chiefs, arguing that concerns can be "effectively mitigated through engaged leadership, effective communications, training and education, and clear and concise standards of conduct."

Meanwhile, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. James Cartwright, a Marine Corps officer, echoed the Pentagon's leadership in saying that the repeal would "involve manageable risk." He also disputed arguments that the law should not be changed during wartime.

"Waiting for a more ideal time to decide this question is obviously one option; however difficult tasks are rarely well served by delay," Cartwright said. "It is hard to foresee a time when the men and women of the U.S. military will be more focused and disciplined than they are today."

Cartwright said the military is weighing options on how best to implement a repeal of the law, including a phased implementation that would affect certain units or services before others. "What we're trying to understand here is what would, in fact, be a logical implementation structure," he said.

Nonetheless, Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., seized on the comments from the service chiefs Friday to demand more time to examine the issue. Specifically, he said he wanted to hear from senior enlisted personnel and war commanders.