Pentagon report puts pressure on Republicans over gay troops

The drive to allow gays and lesbians openly to join the US military for the first time was set to get a significant boost last night as the Pentagon unveiled the results of a study showing that soldiers who are already serving either support the move or do not care enough about the issue to oppose it.

With the long-awaited report finally in their hands, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are due to begin hearings tomorrow on a provision to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell policy" introduced by the former president Bill Clinton 17 years ago, which is seen by many today as perpetuating anti-gay prejudice in America.

Crucially, the report says integrating gays and lesbians would have minimal effect on the military's ability to function and fight. "While repeal will likely in the short-term bring about some limited disruption to unit cohesion and retention, we do not believe the disruption will be long-lasting," it concludes.

The stakes are high, with Democrats both on Capitol Hill and the White House crossing their fingers that the new findings will help a group of around 10 Republicans, including Senator John McCain, who have previously expressed their resistance to a repeal of the law, to set their doubts aside.

The recalcitrance of those Republicans has endured until now in the face not only of support for a repeal of the effective ban from President Obama but also from Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary who is a hold-over from the George Bush administration, and from Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Briefing reporters on Capitol Hill yesterday, Mr Gates added that all existing personnel policies such as healthcare and housing benefits "can and should be applied equally to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals". He did say, however, that the military would need some time to make the transition.

The military, according to the report's two lead authors, the Army General Carter Ham and the Defence Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson, is ready to move forward to lift existing restrictions. "We are convinced that our military can do this," the study concludes.

In assembling the report, the Pentagon canvassed 400,000 service members over several months about their attitudes on ending all restrictions on gays and lesbians joining their ranks. A full 70 per cent said they thought it would have no effect on their units.

More than two-thirds said they believed they had already served alongside gays and lesbians. Of those, 92 per cent said their ability to work together with them was either very good, good or neither good nor poor.

Both Mr Gates and Admiral Mullen will testify on these outcomes to the Senate committee this week. Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, has said he wants to attach a repeal of the existing ban to a defence spending bill for a final vote before the end of the year. (The House voted in favour of a repeal months ago.)

Supporters of an end to "don't ask, don't tell" warn that a failure to approve the change this month could be disastrous, because after January the margin of the Democrat majority will be significantly cut and the resistance from a larger class of conservative Republicans could block progress for months, if not years.

The report recalls the resistance in the wake of World War II to the racial integration of the US Army. But by 1953, 95 per cent of all African-American soldiers were serving in racially integrated units, while buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and other cities were still racially segregated, it noted.

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