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Gates talks about policy on gays in military, decision to cancel weapons project
[April 16, 2009]

Gates talks about policy on gays in military, decision to cancel weapons project

CARLISLE BARRACKS, Pa., Apr 16, 2009 (Tribune Washington Bureau - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that the Obama administration would move cautiously in shifting policies on gays serving openly in the military, but signaled that military service members should prepare for possible changes.

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

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

"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." His comments came in an appearance in which Gates explained his decision to cancel an $87 billion modernization project known as the Future Combat System, the Army's next generation of high-tech tanks and transports. Obama has praised Gates' decision to shift the Pentagon budget away from expensive weapons systems and more toward needs of existing conflicts.

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

After former President Bill 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 has been criticized for helping drive them from military service.

Gates said Obama would be "deliberate and cautious," but drew a parallel with President Harry Truman's effort to bring racial integration to the armed forces. Gates said that process took five years after Truman signed a 1948 executive order.

Within the military, opinions on gays who serve vary. Many older officers believe that allowing gays to serve openly in infantry companies could complicate relations among service members, potentially creating tensions and undermining unit morale.

But others, especially younger officers and war veterans, oppose the ban on gays serving openly. VoteVets, a group of mainly Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who oppose Don't Ask, Don't Tell, urged quick changes.

"Any thought that this can't happen quickly just isn't true," said Jon Soltz, the co-founder of VoteVets. "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 the audience of mostly Army colonels and lieutenant colonels.

The Defense secretary acknowledged that the Army's leadership did not agree with his decision. But he said the Future Combat System was inadequately armored and that the Army needed new equipment that built more on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Part of the problem, Gates said, was that the Future Combat System 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." Gates earlier this month proposed the cancellation of the future Army vehicles as well as other major weapons projects, such as the F-22 fighter and C-17 cargo plane. In their place, Gates proposed beefing up personnel and improving intelligence and surveillance capabilities.

Behind that step was a conclusion, Gates said, that too many in the Pentagon viewed Iraq and Afghanistan as "exotic distractions," rather than examples of the kind of fights the U.S. is likely to face in the future.

"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 Gates said that 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 a major strategic study called the Quadrennial Defense Review that will examine the kinds of wars likely to confront U.S. military services and what sort of equipment the military will need.

___ (c) 2009, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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