The top generals from the Army and the Air Force expressed deep concern on Tuesday about moving rapidly to lift the ban on openly gay service members, saying it could make it harder for their forces to do their jobs while fighting two wars.
The comments by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of the staff, and Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, may provide political cover for members of Congress who oppose President Obama’s call for repealing the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I do have serious concerns about the impact of repeal of the law on a force that’s fully engaged in two wars and has been at war for eight-and-a-half years,” General Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We just don’t know the impacts on readiness and military effectiveness.”
In a separate appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, General Schwartz cautioned that there was little research on how the policy change might affect Air Force personnel deployed for combat, surveillance and support missions around the world.
“This is not the time to perturb the force that is, at the moment, stretched by demands in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere without careful deliberation,” General Schwartz said.
Both generals — one representing the Army, the nation’s largest armed service, and one from the Air Force, the newest — spoke with what sounded like carefully considered language.
Both expressed reservations about moving too swiftly to change the policy, and both endorsed the decision by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to deliberately review the issue before acting. And both pledged that they would fully carry out any decision of Congress about gay men and lesbians in the military. Changing the policy that Congress imposed 16 years ago would require legislative action.
It had been an open secret in the corridors of the Pentagon that some senior generals held a different view of “don’t ask, don’t tell” from that expressed by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before Congress this month.
“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Admiral Mullen said.
Admiral Mullen, the first serving chairman to support repeal of the ban, said it was his personal belief that “allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”
Mr. Gates, sitting beside Admiral Mullen during that hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was carrying out Mr. Obama’s policy of moving to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But the defense secretary said any change in policy would require a deliberate review, and cautioned that a Pentagon panel might take up to one year to study how to put into place any changes approved by Congress.
A leading advocate of repealing the policy, Aubrey Sarvis, said he was not especially worried by the comments on Tuesday from the Army and Air Force chiefs, noting that the senior officer corps is bound to honor Mr. Obama’s policy, Mr. Gates’s review and any action by Congress.
“They expressed some differences,” said Mr. Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “But at the end of the day, I would say they are still on the same page as the commander in chief and the secretary and Admiral Mullen, and I am not anticipating a dramatic departure from that approach.”