The four U.S. military service chiefs are bucking higher-ups by refusing at this point to endorse removing the ban on open gays in the ranks.
Their boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, have both voiced support for repealing the 1993 law. Mr. Gates ordered a yearlong study, not to judge whether to lift the ban, but how do it and what impact it will have on combat readiness.
But when the core of the Joint Chiefs testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday and Wednesday, none committed to repeal. And the chiefs of the Marine Corps and Army, whose infantry and armor troops fight in close quarters, pointed to reasons they may ultimately oppose the lifting of a policy known as "don't ask, don't tell."
"I do have serious concerns about the impact of the repeal of the law on a force that's fully engaged in two wars and has been at war for 8½ years," Gen. George Casey, the Army chief, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, whose troops led the ongoing surge in Afghanistan, testified the current ban is working. He suggested social change might have to take a back seat to what today is a combat-ready force.
"That's what they have been built to do under the current construct, and I would argue that we've done a pretty good job bringing that to pass," he testified before the House Armed Services Committee. "My concern would be that somehow that central purpose or focus were to become secondary to the discussion."
Gen. Conway has argued against repeal in private talks inside the Pentagon.
The chiefs of the Navy and Air Force, unlike Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen, also refused to endorse repeal, saying they wanted to see the study's outcome.
"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," said Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief.
Adm. Gary Roughhead, chief of naval operations, also withheld repeal support.
President Obama campaigned on removing the ban. In his State of the Union address, he called for repeal this year. Mr. Gates has testified the administration cannot allow open gays in the ranks without Congress changing the law, which calls homosexuality an "unacceptable risk" to discipline.
It is not clear at this point whether the Gates-ordered study, headed by a four-star Army general and the Pentagon general counsel, will be done by year's end.
Some liberal Democrats have called for a vote before the study is complete. This would mean Congress would not have the final views of the service chiefs who, by law, are charged with maintaining a ready armed services.
Anti-ban forces suffered a setback when liberals failed to get the chiefs to back a moratorium on discharging gays during the debate.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, pressed Gen. Casey on whether he would object.
"I would recommend against it," Gen. Casey said. " Aside from the legal issues …, it would complicate the whole process that Secretary Gates had laid out. We would be put in a position of actually implementing it while we were studying implementation. And I don't think that would be prudent."
Mr. Levin then asserted "you're not implementing anything. You're just withholding discharges until that study is completed."
Gen. Casey held firm.
"Chairman, this process is going to be difficult and complicated enough," he said. "Anything that complicates it more, I think I would be opposed to."
The general, who once led all forces in Iraq, underscored the importance of the chiefs' opinion on the gay ban when he was asked how his commanders view it.
"Their input is certainly welcome," he said. "But we're the ones responsible for organizing and preparing the forces that they employ. We the service chiefs have a greater stake in it. But their reasoned opinions are always welcome."
Anti-ban forces saw their testimony as a plus.
"All the chiefs who testified on ["don't ask, don't tell"] repeal this week are essentially on the same page," said Kevin Nix, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "All agree with the approach laid out earlier this month by Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen on how to repeal [it], not whether there is repeal."