By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon will announce on Friday that the military is ready to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces, the last major hurdle to formally ending the policy, U.S. officials said on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama last year signed a landmark law to allow for the repeal of the nearly 18-year-old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that forced gays to keep their sexual orientation secret in order to serve in the military.
But Pentagon leaders first needed to certify that military readiness would not suffer as a result -- something that will now be done by new U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Once the Pentagon has signed off, Obama can certify the repeal -- fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise to end a policy that saw more than 13,000 men and women expelled from the military because of their sexual orientation.
There is then a 60-day waiting period before the law is finally scrapped.
Ending the policy, enacted under then-President Bill Clinton in 1993, has been a top priority of gay rights activists, along with advancing same-sex marriage rights.
Critics of repeal within the Pentagon had long argued it was too risky to pursue the change at a time when the military was stretched by the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan.
But a Pentagon study unveiled last year predicted that scrapping the policy would have little impact, and repeal won support from Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
U.S. courts also intervened, with a California district court judge last year finding that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy violated the U.S. constitution.
The Obama administration managed to keep the policy partly in effect through court appeals in order to give the Defense Department time to prepare for repeal. Last week, a federal appeals court blocked the Pentagon from investigating or discharging anyone under the policy.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)