Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III suggested to lawmakers on Thursday that he supports changes to the laws that govern how the military handles sexual assault cases, a major shift for military leadership, which has long resisted such changes.
“Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Mr. Austin said in his opening remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One assault is too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are still too high, and the confidence in our system is still too low.”
Mr. Austin appeared to be endorsing the recommendations of a panel he appointed to study the issue earlier this year. That panel recommends that independent military lawyers take over the role that commanders currently play in deciding whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence.
But he was clearly stopping short of endorsing a measure long pushed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that would cut out the military chain of command from decisions over sexual assault, but also extend outside prosecutorial power over many other serious crimes as well.
President Biden has endorsed her approach, at least for now, and her bill has gained support from at least 70 members of the Senate — including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders, the long held view of Pentagon leaders — and key members in the House.
Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes Ms. Gillibrand’s bill goes too far and has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to reign it in.
“I want to be sure that whatever changes to the U.C.M.J. that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee, that they are scoped to the problem we are trying to solve, have a clear way forward on implementation, and ultimately restore the confidence of the force in the system,” Mr. Austin said, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the foundation of the American military legal system. “You have my commitment to that, and also my commitment to working expeditiously as you consider legislative proposals.”
Mr. Austin’s remarks Thursday could set off an intense political battle that will test the power of Ms. Gillibrand among her bipartisan Senate allies, including Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, who could be forced to pick sides in determining the measure’s fate, and the White House.
In either event, it seems clear that commanders are all but certain to lose full control over sexual assault prosecutions. “Change is coming to the department,” Mr. Reed said Thursday in reference to the assault issue.
When he was confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin made sexual assault one of his first priorities. In February, he appointed the independent commission to examine the issue and give recommendations that he and the service chiefs could consider.
The members of the panel are seeking a new career track in the Defense Department in which judge advocates general — military lawyers — would be specially trained to deal with such cases. This alone would be a major shift in how the military does things. Mr. Austin has said he wants the service chiefs to review the recommendations.
Momentum has been in place for such changes since Mr. Biden was elected. Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary and the first woman to serve in the No. 2 role at the Pentagon, and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both said they have been swayed that the current system does not serve victims well.
In 2019, the Defense Department found that there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims, a 3 percent increase from 2018. The conviction rate for cases was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 percent of cases that the command took action on resulted in conviction, the lowest rate since the department began reporting in 2010.