The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing on sexual assault in the military. This comes after months of revelations of rapes and other violent attacks at military bases and academies. At the hearing, the chiefs of staff of the military branches will likely admit that there is a serious problem and insist that the solution involves changing military culture. But the challenge goes far deeper.

The military has a problem with embedded, serial sexual predators. According to a 2011 report from the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office, 90 per cent of military rapes are committed by men with previous histories of assault. These predators select and befriend lower-ranking victims; often they ply their victims with alcohol or drugs and assault them when they are unconscious.

In my film “The Invisible War,” a retired brigadier general, Loree K Sutton, describes the military as a “target-rich environment” for serial predators. The training and leadership efforts the Pentagon proposes won’t change this environment. It simply isn’t possible to “train” or “lead” serial predators not to rape.

There is a way to stop these predators: we should prosecute and incarcerate them. But here the military fails entirely.

Though the US Defence Department estimates that there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military last year, fewer than 1 per cent resulted in a court-martial conviction. Why? There is a deep institutional bias in the military’s justice system; senior officers can - and often do - intervene to prevent cases from being investigated and prosecuted.

Victims of sexual assault know this well, which is why fewer than 15 per cent of sexual assaults in the military are ever reported. I spoke with hundreds of men and women who were sexually assaulted in the military while I was making “The Invisible War”; every one of them was advised by their peers not to report. Gen James F Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, acknowledged that victims didn’t come forward because “they don’t trust the command.” Victims know they are unlikely to receive impartial justice and that reporting their attackers to the chain of command may well hurt their careers.

Senator Kirsten E Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and colleagues have recently introduced legislation that would empower military prosecutors and judges to decide whether to investigate and prosecute felony crimes. This would remove the decision-making process from the military chain of command and remove the disincentive to report crimes. The Pentagon is resisting this reform, just as it resisted reforms after the Tailhook episode in 1991, over sexual assaults at a gathering in Las Vegas; sexual assaults on female Army recruits at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 1996; and a 2003 investigation of rapes and attempted rapes at the Air Force Academy, near Colorado Springs.

After each of these scandals, the military claimed it knew best how to handle the problem and proceeded to institute insignificant reforms that did little to reduce assaults among the troops. Now the generals are circling the wagons again, insisting that the legislation’s reasonable reforms would affect commanders’ ability to maintain “good order and discipline.” But, as Ms Gillibrand noted, a military that suffered 26,000 sexual assaults within its ranks in the last year is already failing to maintain “good order and discipline.”

Sexual assault crimes are among the most difficult to prosecute, which makes it doubly absurd to have anyone other than professional prosecutors decide whether to pursue these crimes. We wouldn’t tolerate a senior commander’s operating a helicopter unless he or she was fully trained to do so. Similarly, we should not allow commanders, who are not trained as prosecutors, to make final determinations as to whether the military should adjudicate sexual assault crimes.

The US military readiness will be compromised unless the military quickly begins to bring sex predators in its ranks to justice. Recruiting top personnel is likely to be more difficult so long as the armed forces are known as an unsafe, lawless institution. Over the last year I’ve been contacted by dozens of mothers and fathers, many of whom have proudly served, who informed me, with great regret, that they could not encourage their child to enlist. If this country finds itself in a new conflict a decade from now, the difference between having the best recruits could mean the difference between winning and losing a war.

The US military cannot - and will not - fix this problem on its own. Despite the military’s repeated assurances over several decades that it has “zero tolerance” for sexual assault and will hold commanders accountable, more than 500,000 uniformed men and women have been assaulted since 1991. Senator Gillibrand’s bill gives Congress a real opportunity to fix a broken military justice system and begin incarcerating serial predators. Let’s not wait another generation and allow these predators to destroy the lives of another half a million of our sons and daughters.–NY Times