The Pentagon laid out its plan to address sexual assault and domestic violence in the military, three months after the White House and the defense secretary threw their support behind recommendations made by an independent review commission.
“The administration has placed an unprecedentedly high priority on this challenge set,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said during a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday. “We have now created the way ahead, called the implementation road map, and Secretary Austin has approved it in its entirety.”
The implementation plan includes proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the planned creation of the Office of the Special Victim Prosecutor, which will remove the investigation of sexual assault and domestic violence from the chain of command, one defense official said. It will also include plans for implementing a number of the other recommendations made by the independent review commission.
The implementation plan includes a four-tier approach to implement all of the Independent Review Commission’s recommendations, about 80 in total. The first tier of the plan focuses on establishing the office of the Special Victim Prosecutor and creating a full-time and specialized prevention workforce within the military. It will also focus on implementing a full-time sexual assault response coordinator and prevention and response victim advocate positions within the military, Hicks said during the briefing.
In order to establish a prevention workforce and response victim advocate positions within the military, the Department of Defense will have to build out an entirely new workforce, Hicks said. Because of the scale of these changes, the plan estimates that the first tier will be fully implemented by the end of the fiscal year 2027, about five years from now. An official stressed that is a conservative estimate.
The Department of Defense did not specify how sexual assault and harassment claims will be handled while these changes are being implemented.
“Our goal is to implement as rapidly as possible while ensuring we can deliver durable and meaningful outcomes,” Hicks said.
The announcement follows months of small steps taken inside the department to address the military’s ongoing “scourge” of sexual assault since Lloyd Austin became secretary of defense in January.
Shortly after his confirmation, Austin issued a directive setting up the independent review commission, asking the commission to provide recommendations in 90 days. In the spring, the commission recommended that independent authorities decide whether or not to prosecute service members in sexual assault cases, taking the decision-making out of the chain of command.
At the beginning of July, when the full recommendations of the commission were made public, President Joe Biden threw his support behind the report and its recommendations, calling it “among the most significant reforms” to the US military in recent years. Austin also said he supports removing the investigation of sexual assault from the chain of command. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said he no longer opposed such a move, saying that previous efforts to combat sexual assault in the military hadn’t “moved the needle.”
The report, titled “Hard Truths and the Duty to Change: Recommendations from the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military,” made more than 80 recommendations, some of which it urged the military to implement as soon as practical, while others require more substantial legislative changes.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, introduced a bill in the spring to make that change law. Gillibrand and Ernst have been focused on the issue of sexual assault in the military for years. But their bill also included broad, sweeping changes to the prosecution of felony crimes in the military, all of which would be turned over to a special prosecutor and removed from the chain of command.
Gillibrand was critical of the roadmap’s timeline.
“The idea that it would take five years to implement the IRC recommendations is absurd. If the US military can deploy troops across the globe on hours’ notice, it shouldn’t have any problems making these commonsense reforms on behalf of sexual assault survivors,” Gillibrand said in a statement to CNN.
Gillibrand argued in June there should be a “bright line at all felonies,” including sexual assault, and they should be investigated and prosecuted outside the chain of command. But in letters released by Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, members of the Joint Chiefs pushed back against removing all felonies, as it would harm a commander’s ability to maintain good order and discipline.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.