WASHINGTON — Three of the four U.S. armed service chiefs told lawmakers Friday that letting homosexuals serve openly in the military while the country is at war could be disruptive to combat operations.
A day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged senators to act now to change the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked the chiefs to chime in on the potential effect on the effectiveness of the force.
The commandant of the Marine Corps said that changing the policy now, while more than 50 percent of Marine combat forces are heavily engaged in Afghanistan, posed a "strong potential for disruption."
"My recommendation is we should not implement repeal at this time," said Marine Corps Gen. James Amos. "I ask for the opportunity to do it when my forces are not singularly focused on combat."
The head of the Air Force, whose pilots are actively engaged in round-the-clock combat missions over Afghanistan, recommended that if the law is changed, the policy not take effect until 2012 at the earliest.
Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz said he believed that gay service members could be integrated openly into the Air Force over time, but he described as "too optimistic" the Department of Defense report this week that the shortterm risk of repeal was low.
The Army is already stretched by the effects of a decade at war, said the Army chief of staff, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. "I would not recommend going forward at this time given all that the Army has on its plate," Casey said.
"I believe the law should be repealed eventually," said Casey.
The chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, recommended the repeal of the law, saying that the Navy might see a reduction in re-enlistment by some highly trained combat sailors, including Navy SEALs but that he did not think there would be any longterm effect.
Navy sailors routinely train and work in close quarters alongside the service members of allied navies that allow homosexuals to serve openly, Roughead said. After studying the integration of gay sailors into other navies over the past decade, Roughead described the impact on the effectiveness of the force as a "nonevent."
All the military leaders agreed Friday that they would rather see the policy changed by Congress, which would give more discretion and leeway to the secretary of defense, than by a court ruling.
Lawmakers are under pressure to change the 17-year-old law after a California federal judge ruled that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was discriminatory and ordered an immediate and permanent halt. Her order is on hold during an appeal.