WASHINGTON  : Reports of sexual assaults in the US military jumped 60 percent last year, but officials said Wednesday the surge shows victims have more confidence their cases will be taken seriously.

There have been a spate of high-profile cases in the past two years, leading to a series of initiatives and prompting President Barack Obama to express outrage over the problem and lawmakers to demand dramatic action.

About 5,400 cases of sexual assault were reported in fiscal year 2013, or about 15 a day, said Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Cathy Wilkinson, citing preliminary statistics.

“This is a 60-percent increase in victim reports” compared to the 3,374 reports the Defense Department received in 2012, she told AFP in an email.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged the scourge is under-reported and have introduced measures designed to encourage victims to come forward without fear of damaging their career.

“We assess this increase in reports as consistent with a growing level of confidence in our response system,” Wilkinson said.

But the military’s handling of sexual assault cases came in for harsh criticism at a Senate hearing on Wednesday, with victims telling lawmakers they were humiliated and even demoted after reporting crimes.

Some lawmakers have pushed for legislation that would strip commanders of authority to decide whether sexual assault cases go to trial and instead have independent prosecutors handle the cases.

Wilkinson said an additional statistic indicated that victims now had more trust in the military system because there were “growing numbers of reports made by victims about incidents that took place prior to joining the military.”

Last May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered all the armed services to re-examine the backgrounds of all current recruiters and sexual assault counselors to ensure they were qualified to hold “positions of trust.”

As a result, the US Army removed 588 soldiers from jobs as drill sergeants, recruiters, victims advocates and sexual assault response coordinators, spokesman Colonel David Patterson said.

“We will continue working to better ensure we select the very best people for these posts, and that the chain of command knows what is expected of them, and how important this work is to the army,” Patterson said.

The soldiers were sacked from those positions for infractions ranging from child abuse, sexual assault and pornography to drunk-driving convictions.

At least 79 of those removed from their posts are due to be discharged from the army, he said.

The number of soldiers removed was ten times higher than the initial figure the army provided in August.

Hagel ordered the review after a military study found reports of unwanted sexual contact had risen 35 percent from 2010 to 2012.

One high-profile case in recent years includes Brigadier General Jeffery Sinclair, 51, a former deputy commander of American forces in southern Afghanistan.

He faces a court martial over accusations he forced a woman into oral sex and threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone. He has denied the charges but admitted to having an adulterous affair.