The regulations will also put into place new prohibitions on inappropriate behavior between recruits and their military trainers, and mandate that investigations of sexual assaults be conducted by military lawyers, rather than less experienced personnel.
“Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and cohesion of our force,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement Thursday. “It must be stamped out.”
Yet some question whether the moves will be enough to quell growing congressional demands for more stringent steps to bring down the stubbornly high levels of sexual assault within the armed forces.
Instances of US troops who said they were sexually assaulted rose from some 19,000 in 2010 to more than 26,000 in 2012, according to a Pentagon report released in May. However, in the most recent year for which statistics are available, only 3,200 people reported the crime, resulting in 191 convictions.
The Pentagon is under increasing pressure to act in the face of public embarrassments for the US military. Next month, for example, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair will face a court-martial on charges of sexual assault and forcible sodomy of a junior officer. It is only the third court-martial for a US general in 50 years.
Pretrial hearings for Sinclair, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, have included the reading aloud of text messages in which a subordinate captain refers to the general as “Poppa Panda Sexy Pants.”
The court-martial proceedings come on the heels of a disturbing series of debacles for the US military.
In May, the Air Force officer responsible for the service's sexual-assault prevention program was himself arrested for attempting to sexually assault a woman in a parking lot in Arlington, Va. And an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, was charged with forcing a lower-ranking soldier to take part in a prostitution ring and sexually assaulting at least two other subordinates.
Such incidents have drawn the ire of lawmakers, some of whom have proposed legislation to remove commanders from the process of deciding whether and how to proceed with a case – a measure that has broad bipartisan support in the Senate.
"This is not a Democratic idea. It is not a Republican idea. It is a good idea that meets the needs of the victims, creates transparency and accountability, and creates the needed objectivity that this issue deserves," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York said last month, while pointing out that Germany, Britain, and Israel already have adopted similar measures.
Senior US military officials have made it clear that they are stridently opposed to such changes in “command authority,” arguing that it would erode military discipline.
The measures announced Thursday are widely seen as the Pentagon’s bid to avert such legislation, and they include some measures that were already included in pending congressional bills.
In addition to legal representation, the measures also call for providing commanders with options to reassign or transfer those accused of sexual assault, rather than the moving the victims, as had been the policy.
“All of these measures will provide victims additional rights, protections, and legal support – and help ensure that sexual assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally,” Secretary Hagel said.
The measures “serve as an important first step to ensuring the protection of victims, prosecution of those responsible, and prevention of future criminal acts,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R) of Ohio, while adding that there is “still much more work to be done.”
In time, the Pentagon may adopt other legislative proposals as well, said Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, who says that there is “merit in many” of them.
“Some of those that are out there we are still considering and working with them,” he told reporters during a Pentagon briefing Thursday afternoon.
The proposed steps elicited a qualified response from Senator Gillibrand. “The Pentagon taking action is a good thing and these are positive steps forward but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem,” she said in a statement. “As we have heard over and over again from the victims, and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect on reporting” assaults.
Military victims advocacy groups had similar responses.
“While we support efforts that attack the status quo, these changes are mostly small tweaks to a broken system,” retired Navy JAG Taryn Meeks, executive director of the group Protect our Defenders, said in a statement.
While praising the plan to provide legal representation to victims of sexual assault, Ms Meeks added that the bulk of the changes “simply do not constitute fundamental reform and are not sufficient to address the crisis.”