The Pentagon said Wednesday its first set of military-wide sexual assault reforms under Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, including new special victims prosecutors, will take until 2027 to fully complete.
The newly unveiled plans would create a full-time and specialized workforce inside the military focused on preventing sexual assault, as well as adding response coordinators and victim advocates, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks told reporters during a briefing Wednesday.
These are the department's highest-priority changes -- Hicks called them the foundation of the military's latest effort to deal with what has been described for years as an epidemic of sexual assault among the military services. Congress, frustrated by years of no progress, is moving toward changes of the military justice system this year to help victims.
Legislation spearheaded by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that was added into the Senate’s version of the annual defense authorization bill would remove commanders from decisions on felony cases, including “rape and sexual assault, murder, manslaughter, child endangerment, child pornography, and negligent homicide.”
The House version of the defense bill would remove commanders on cases of special victim offenses, a category that includes “sexual assault, sexual harassment, and all offenses against a child under the age of 18, among others,” according to the House Armed Services Committee summary.
Pentagon officials, including Hicks, have described concerns about removing commanders from the justice process for crimes besides sexual assault.
Hicks said the changes are set to "deal a fundamental blow" to the stubbornly growing or, at best, unchanging number of sexual assaults among troops over the past decade. An annual report by the Pentagon in May found 6,290 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2020, up 1% from the prior year.
Adding the specialized workforce can be done more quickly within the active-duty force; Hicks said she expects significant progress there over the next two years. But the changes are unlikely to be completed within the National Guard and reserve forces for six years, she added.
"The DoD efforts in this space will be the largest ever attempted. No university, no major institution is at our scale," Hicks said. "We want to move fast, but we want to make sure these changes last and we build back that trust."
President Joe Biden ordered an independent review earlier this year and in July backed results that called for removing sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command, a proposal that had been opposed by the Pentagon previously and debated for years on Capitol Hill.
"We need concrete actions that fundamentally change the way we handle military sexual assault and that make it clear that these crimes will not be minimized or dismissed," Biden said in a July statement.
Commanders can intervene in the criminal prosecution of sexual assaults under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and critics say that has allowed perpetrators to avoid punishment and eroded trust among victims.
In July, Austin supported removing the cases from the chain of command -- a sea change making it almost certain that new legislation will pass Congress -- and all 82 recommendations from the independent review commission ordered by Biden.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct what is included in legislation currently being considered by the House and Senate.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.