By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned on Wednesday that the military's sexual assault problem could drive away new recruits, and urged a group of officer trainees to have the courage to speak out against behavior that contributes to sexual misconduct.
Carter's remarks to reserve officer trainees at Georgetown University came ahead of the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on sexual assault and prevention efforts, which is expected in the next few weeks.
The U.S. defense chief noted that the department had achieved some success in dealing with the problem, implementing 150 congressional and Pentagon directives in recent years to curb sexual assault and encourage reporting of the crime.
But he noted a study last year found some 18,900 military service members, more than half of them men, had experienced unwanted sexual contact and only a fraction of them had reported the incidents.
"We need to recruit the force of the future, and sexual assault is an issue for many of our potential recruits," Carter said. "We can't let sexual assault make our all-volunteer force a less attractive path for the next generation of talented dedicated individuals that we need."
Asked whether the Pentagon would open all military jobs to women by early next year, Carter said he expected "most will" be open and "maybe all" but he could not yet say for sure.
The services began a process two years ago to open thousands of front-line combat jobs to women. The military service branches have been developing gender-neutral requirements for all jobs in the military and evaluating whether to recommend that any remain closed to women.
Sixteen of 19 women passed the initial physical training hurdle this week at the first Army Ranger school to include women. Army Rangers are elite airborne light infantry unit and are considered among the best trained in the military.
Asked how integrating women into more front-line combat roles might affect the effort to deal with the problem of sexual assault, Carter said he thought it could "cut both ways."
He said moving women into isolated positions where they are fewer in number might create opportunities for predators, a situation the military would try to remedy.
"On the other hand," Carter added, "... I can't help but believe for many people they'll learn better how to ... interact across gender lines and so forth, and that will contribute to prevention and eventually eradication of sexual assault."
(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)