A candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States has said he backs current US policy on gays in the military.

Senator John McCain thinks that troops will be put in danger if openly gay people are allowed to serve.

McCain, 70, is almost certain to be the oldest Presidential hopeful in next year’s contest. He was seen as the acceptable face of Republicanism.

He was a keynote speaker at the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth last year, and is seen as politically close to the ‘new’ conservatism espoused by David Cameron.

In a letter to the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network (SLDN), Senator McCain says the current law, passed in 1993, “unambiguously maintains that open homosexuality within the military services presents an intolerable risk to morale, cohesion and discipline.”

McCain, a war hero who was held as a prisoner of war by the VietCong for six years, was thought to be broadly supportive of gay rights.

President Bill Clinton had promised to open the military to openly gay and lesbian people during his successful 1992 campaign for President, but caved into pressure from the Army – the compromise was the current policy.

It remains illegal to be a member of the US Armed Forces and be openly gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Since 1993, over 11,000 members of the Marines, Navy, Army, Coast Guard and Air Force have been discharged.

“Senator McCain’s comments are out of step with the overwhelming majority of the American people, and out of touch with the best interests of our armed forces,” said Sharra E. Greer, SLDN’s director of law and policy.

“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ prevents our military from recruiting and retaining the best and brightest Americans, and undermines our country’s ability to assemble the strongest fighting force possible.

“Senator McCain’s defence of this counter-productive law is disrespectful to the more than 65,000 lesbian and gay service members on duty today.”

In his letter, Senator McCain said:

“I believe polarisation of personnel and breakdown of unit effectiveness is too high a price to pay for well-intentioned but misguided efforts to elevate the interests of a minority of homosexual service members above those of their units.

“Most importantly, the national security of the United States, not to mention the lives of our men and women in uniform, are put at grave risk by policies detrimental to the good order and discipline which so distinguish America’s Armed Services.”

A growing number of prominent Republicans now support repeal of the ban.

Writing in The Washington Post in March, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming said: “I believe it is critical that we review, and overturn, the ban on gay service members in the military.

“I voted for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ But much has changed since 1993. We need every able-bodied, smart patriot to help us win this war.”

In the U.S. House of Representatives, a bi-partisan coalition of 123 lawmakers now support legislation to repeal the law.

Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, is an original co-sponsor of legislation to repeal the law.

His Republican colleague from Connecticut, Congressman Christopher Shays, has noted that, “It seems to me, competence, ability, dedication and commitment to country should dictate one’s eligibility for military service, not sexual preference.”

And Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen recently told The Miami Herald:

“We investigate people, bring them up on charges, basically wreck their lives. People who’ve signed up to serve our country. We should be thanking them.”

The main Democrat contenders for the Presidency all support a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”