In testimony Tuesday before a key Senate panel, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the military would conduct a year-long study on how to lift “don't ask, don't tell,” the policy that bans gay troops from serving openly in the Armed Forces.

“The question before us not whether the military prepares to make this change but how we best prepare for it,” Gates said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gates explained that the working group would be co-chaired by Jen. C. Johnson, the Pentagon's top legal counsel, and General Carter Ham, the commander of the United States Army in Europe and would study how best to implement changes should Congress repeal the law.

Gates also said the military would consider altering implementation of the law.

“We believe that we have a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform,” he said.

Gates has previously questioned the need to take actions against service members when they've been outed out of vengeance or after being jilted.

“If someone is outed by a third party … does that force us to take an action?” he rhetorically asked reporters last July.

“That's the kind of thing we're looking at to see if there's a more humane way to apply the law until the law gets changed,” Gates added.

Recommendations on the matter are expected within 45 days, Gates said.

Also testifying was Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen said he believed the policy should be repealed.

“It is my personal and professional belief that allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” Mullen said. “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Gay groups lobbying for repeal cheered the Pentagon's testimony.

“We strongly applaud Secretary Gates supporting the president's view that 'don't ask, don't tell' needs to go,” Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), said in a statement. “We also strongly applaud Chairman Mullen, who unambiguously [and] personally supported gays and lesbians serving openly.”

Republicans on the panel, led by Arizona Senator John McCain, appeared united against repeal.

McCain, who recently called the policy “successful,” declared himself “deeply disappointed” in Gates' testimony.

“At this moment of immense hardship for our armed services, we should not be seeking to overturn the 'don't ask,don't tell' policy,” McCain said.

A House bill that would repeal the “don't ask” policy sponsored by Pennsylvania Representative Patrick Murphy, a decorated Iraq veteran, is 31 votes short of the 218 needed for passage. A Senate version of the bill has yet to be introduced, though it's widely expected that Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman will sponsor such a measure.

A recent UCLA study found 66,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual people are currently serving in the Armed Forces, approximately 2.2% of all military personnel, and the military has spent up to $500 million implementing the gay ban.