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Gates hints at changes to ban on gays in military

The Defense chief says that the Obama administration will move cautiously, but that he has 'begun a dialogue' with the president over the issue.

April 17, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

CARLISLE BARRACKS, PA. — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that the Obama administration would move cautiously in shifting policies on gays serving openly in the military, but he signaled that service members should prepare for possible changes.

In his most extensive remarks to date about the ongoing ban on gays who serve openly, Gates said he and other military leaders had "begun a dialogue" with President Obama about the issue.

Obama promised during last year's presidential campaign to end the ban on gays in the military, and the White House said recently that it was reviewing the issue. Gates said Obama had been clear with the military about his position.

"We will do what the president asks us to do," Gates said at the Army War College. "There is a law; we will uphold the law. If the law changes, so will our policies."

Gates' comments came during an appearance in which he was explaining his decision to cancel an $87-billion modernization project known as Future Combat Systems, the Army's next generation of tanks and transports.

Obama has praised Gates' decision to shift the Pentagon budget away from expensive, high-tech weapons systems and toward the needs of existing conflicts.

Gates said the issue of gays in the military was a "complex and difficult problem" that would be approached carefully.

After President Clinton considered ending the ban on gays in the military in 1993, Congress passed a law instituting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The policy theoretically allows gays and lesbians to serve if they do not reveal their sexual orientation, but it has been criticized as helping drive gays from the military.

Gates said Obama would be "deliberate and cautious," and drew a parallel with President Truman's effort to racially integrate the armed forces. That process took five years after Truman signed a 1948 executive order, Gates said.

Many older officers think allowing gays to serve openly in infantry companies could complicate relations among troops, potentially creating tensions and undermining morale.

Others, especially younger officers and some war veterans, oppose the ban on gays serving openly. VoteVets.org, a group of mainly Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, urges swift changes to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Any thought that this can't happen quickly just isn't true," said Jon Soltz, co-founder of the group. "Today's military is an all-volunteer, professional force that prides itself on obeying the orders of the commander in chief."

Gates explained his decision to kill the Army's future generation of tanks and vehicles to an audience of mostly Army colonels and lieutenant colonels.

He acknowledged that the Army's leadership did not agree with his decision. But he said the Army needed equipment that built on the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Part of the problem, Gates said, was that Future Combat Systems was an attempt to dramatically overhaul the Army's hardware.

"Maybe Google can do something revolutionary," he said. "We don't have the agility to do that."

Instead of the costly weapons systems, Gates wants to beef up personnel and improve intelligence and surveillance capabilities.

Gates said too many in the Pentagon viewed Iraq and Afghanistan as "exotic distractions," rather than as examples of the fights the U.S. would increasingly face.

"The premise behind the design of these vehicles was that lower weight, greater fuel efficiency and, above all, near total situational awareness would compensate for less heavy armor," Gates said.

But he said at the height of the violence in Iraq, roadside bombs were so numerous, it was impossible to avoid them all.

This year, the Pentagon will conduct its Quadrennial Defense Review. The study will examine the kinds of wars the U.S. is likely to confront and what equipment the military will need.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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