U.S. lawmakers grilled the Air Force's top leaders over rising sexual assaults in the military and the recent removal of more than a dozen officers from overseeing the country's most powerful nuclear missiles.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., cited new Defense Department statistics that showed the number of sexual assaults and related crimes increased 35 percent to 26,000 in the last two years, based on surveys of active-duty personnel.
"I'm just fed up with this," she said during a May 8 hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. "This seems to be a systemic, persistent problem."
The subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said a news report that 17 junior officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., were temporarily stripped of their authority to control and launch Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles due to inspection failings "could not be more troubling."
The issues dominated a hearing at which Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh sought to highlight the harmful effects of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
"I've been working with you for 25 years and it didn't seem to do one damn bit of good," Mikulski, the committee's chairwoman, fumed to Donley in her opening remarks. "I'm pretty frustrated. I want change. I want action."
The hearing came the same week Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, chief of the service's sexual assault prevention and response branch, was arrested and charged with sexual battery after allegedly touching a woman outside a strip club near the Pentagon. It was the latest in a series of high-profile sex cases that have drawn congressional scrutiny.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month proposed limiting the authority of commanders in court-martial cases after Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who was accused of fondling a woman's breasts and genitalia while she slept. Wilkerson remains in the service after the charges were cleared.
An estimated 26,000 active-duty troops had unwanted sexual contact in fiscal 2012, up from about 19,300 in 2010, according to a report the Pentagon released May 7. By comparison, 3,374 troops reported sexual assaults last year, an increase of 5.7 percent from the previous year, according to the report.
Advocates say the discrepancy in the figures shows the degree to which victims are reluctant to come forward.
Welsh said sexual assault in the military "is a cancer," reiterating previous comments he's made on the subject. "No one is more frustrated than I am," he said. "We need your help."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she introduced legislation yesterday with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., in part to mandate more sexual-assault prevention programs in the service. Murray said the Pentagon report showed 62 percent of sexual assault victims were retaliated against by superiors after reporting an incident, a response she called "really disconcerting."
"When they said something, their chain of command officer made sure they paid the price," she said. "That's just wrong."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said sexual assault has become such a problem that it may begin to impact military recruitment. She also questioned why convicted personnel are allowed to remain in the service.
"Why isn't there a policy where they automatically receive a dishonorable discharge and are kicked out?" she asked. "If we really are going to send a signal of zero tolerance, then we shouldn't be keeping individuals convicted of sexual assault in the military in any of our branches."
A bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., would create an independent office within the military to investigate sexual-assault claims and remove cases from the chain of command.
Durbin said the incident at Minot Air Force Base "strikes at the core of our responsibility of our chain of command."
The inspection shortcomings are the latest setbacks for the service's nuclear units. In 2007, a B-52 bomber was mistakenly loaded with six nuclear warheads and flew from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., triggering a widespread investigation and reorganization within the service.
"Heads rolled as a result of that and there were dramatic changes made," Durbin said. "Can you explain to me how we could possibly reach the point with this critical assignment within the U.S. Air Force where there would be such a lack of professionalism and readiness at this high level?"
The Air Force over the past several years has significantly strengthened the inspection process, Donley said. "I am confident in the Air Force's ability to maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent," he said.
The officers involved were mostly lieutenants and some may have been new to the service, Donley said. They received satisfactory ratings in other areas of the inspection, but needed retraining so the commander "took them offline to do that," he said. "That is an appropriate command response."
Durbin questioned whether there was a breakdown of supervision. "It is cold comfort to hear these are lieutenants and they may have been new to the job," he said. "When I consider this responsibility, that is as troubling as the disclosures that we've found."