WASHINGTON : US military chiefs clashed with lawmakers over how to stem an epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks, with the top brass arguing against an overhaul of the force’s justice system.

While vowing to stamp out the problem, the generals cautioned senators against proposals that would strip commanders of authority to refer sexual assault cases for trial, alter sentences or overturn verdicts. “I understand the credibility of the armed forces, the credibility of the army are at stake,” Gen Ray Odierno, the US Army’s chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But we cannot simply legislate our way out of this problem,” he said.

His comments came at a packed hearing in which chiefs of all the armed services and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, made an unusual joint appearance the committee.