WASHINGTON — The chiefs of the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force do not support a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, telling lawmakers Friday that such a move could add unnecessary stress to the force.

“The potential for damage is there,” said Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps. “A repeal would absolutely have an impact on combat units … so my concern goes back to their issues of cohesion and the burden on those units.”

The chiefs spoke during the second day of hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, one day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged the same lawmakers to act now on a repeal. On Tuesday the Pentagon released details of its review of the issue, recommending a slow but deliberate pace of training and policy changes to allow gay troops to serve openly.

But the Army and Marine Corps leaders in particular said they did not agree with the assessment that a dramatic policy change would have only limited impact on troops’ morale and mission effectiveness. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said a repeal would “add another level of stress to an already stretched force” and “be more difficult for the Army than the report suggests.”

All four service chiefs said they believe a repeal of the 17-year-old law will take place in coming years. But while Adm. Gary Roughead recommended Congress act on a repeal now and Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz pushed for a repeal no sooner than 2012, both Casey and Amos said lawmakers should wait until the pressures of combat operations overseas are not weighing on troops’ minds.

A survey conducted as part of the repeal study showed that fewer than a third of troops believe repealing the law would hurt the mission focus or effectiveness.

But among troops from Army combat units, 48 percent predicted a repeal would negatively affect their team’s ability to “work together to get the job done.” That number rose to 58 percent among Marine combat units. Sixty percent of the combat Marines and 49 percent of combat soldiers said they would not be able to trust an openly gay colleague.

Amos said he could not support the change in military policy “as long as we have forces involved in combat,” because of the demands already placed on those units.

“The message to me is that the potential exists for disruption to the successful execution of our current combat mission,” he said. “Based on what I know about the very tough fight on the ground in Afghanistan … my recommendation is that we should not implement repeal at this time.”

Gay rights groups said they were not discouraged by the service chiefs’ opposition, noting that both Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen argued forcefully for a repeal this year during their appearance before the senators on Thursday. Mullen testified that making such a change during a time of war may actually mitigate the impact, since troops will be focused on their missions more than the external controversy.

But opponents seized on Amos’ and Casey’s comments as proof that Congress should not vote for repeal in the waning days of this legislative session. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has lead Republican efforts to block a repeal, said the disagreement among the service chiefs and other Pentagon leadership was proof that more research and polling is needed on the issue.

The House passed repeal language in May, but the measure has been stalled in the Senate since September because of Republican opposition to the idea.

Democrats, who currently control 58 votes in the Senate, will have to gain support from at least two Republicans to avoid a filibuster on the measure, but so far no Republicans have publicly stated they will switch sides to help the repeal effort.

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