By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sexual assault is an "insider attack" that is lethal to the U.S. military's culture of discipline and should have been eliminated years ago, the second-highest U.S. officer told a women's military group on Thursday.
"We have worked hard on this but not hard enough," said Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comparing sexual assault to the insider attacks in which Afghan soldiers have turned their weapons on coalition forces.
"Any form of unwanted sexual contact or sexual harassment is a different kind of insider attack that is lethal to our culture, to our morale and to everything we are and everything we stand for," Winnefeld told the 26th Annual Joint Women's Leadership Symposium.
"We will not allow this to go on."
Winnefeld's remarks came as the military is grappling with a spate of embarrassing high-profile sexual assault incidents that have outraged lawmakers and made military leaders appear ineffectual in dealing with the crime.
Officers charged with stamping out sexual assault have been accused of attacking women, drill sergeants have been accused of sexually molesting troopers they are supposed to be training and top generals have triggered angry reactions by overturning sexual assault convictions handed down by court-martial juries.
An annual Pentagon study on the problem estimated that unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
The incidents and alarming statistics have prompted lawmakers on Capitol Hill to consider legislation to force the military to deal more effectively with sex crimes, including taking some steps opposed by the heads of the military services.
Senators on the Armed Services Committee took the military chiefs to task over the issue at a hearing on Tuesday, with Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam war veteran, telling them he could not "overstate my disgust and disappointment."
In his remarks to military women on Thursday, Winnefeld said the services were working with Congress to assess 22 pending pieces of legislation dealing with the problem. He did not discuss military opposition to the measures, saying only that commanders should be more accountable, not less.
Military leaders have opposed taking responsibility for prosecuting sexual assault out of the chain of command, saying that making commanders less accountable would undermine force readiness and inhibit their ability to enforce unit discipline.
Winnefeld said the service chiefs were tackling the issue from every angle, adding that the most important thing was to "eliminate the sense of impunity the predator may feel."
That can best be done, he said, by ensuring that victims feel comfortable reporting the crime and that all complaints are effectively investigated, prosecuted and punished.
Winnefeld also told the women's group the military was committed to opening up more jobs to women, who are currently barred from certain combat positions or from serving in some jobs in small-unit levels that would put them close to combat.
"The fact of the matter is that you make the whole team better," he said. "Women are an integral part of who we are as a Joint Force and what we're able to accomplish worldwide as a military power"
The Pentagon earlier this year agreed to lift its ban on women in front-line combat jobs. The different branches of the military submitted plans last month to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on implementing the removal of the ban by 2016. The services are expected to discuss their plans publicly soon.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Vicki Allen)