The Pentagon is about to meet its first deadline on a years-long implementation plan for more than 80 recommendations released last year after a review commission drilled down on the Defense Department’s sexual assault prevention and response programs.
But things aren’t as far along as they would have liked, according to the DoD’s No. 2 official.
Though implementation began in September, Congress didn’t pass a full year’s budget until March 10, holding up some of the progress. That delayed one of the plan’s cornerstones, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks told Military Times on Tuesday, which includes hiring a dedicated workforce to administer prevention training and response programs, rather than the commonplace troops on collateral duty doing it now.
“We just got those appropriations. So now begins the journey of trying to hire that pool of talent,” Hicks said during a Defense Writers Group event. “And of course, we’re doing it at a time when mental health professionals are at a premium across not just government but across the country. So I think that’ll be a barrier to our timelines, but we’re moving out as quickly as we can.”
Looking ahead, the Pentagon’s recent budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 includes $479 million for SAPR reform.
The first deadline comes up May 1, when the implementation team will present Hicks with a set of metrics they’ll use to measure success in new efforts.
“The reforms with regard to the military justice system are also well underway,” Hicks said. Those include a new, independent organization that assigns experienced sexual assault prosecutors to make decisions about trying cases, instead of leaving decisions up to unit commanders.
There are also some bureaucratic changes in the works, she added. Those include raising statutory limits on the number of senior DoD civilians and general officers, helping create some of these new organizations.
“But by and large, we’re well down the pathway that we expected ― except for the appropriations issue,” Hicks said.
The implementation plan, which rolls out in increments through 2030, is expected to cost $4.6 billion over the next five years.
While the most groundbreaking parts of the plan are on the response side, the prevention piece will be a huge lift.
A Pentagon report on SAPR compliance at military bases included the assertion that the military’s understanding of and ability to prevent sexual assaults is underdeveloped, though the program has existed since 2005.
“I think this is part of the problem, is that SAPR’s about response, and we want a prevention workforce, and they’re not the same, and they’re not trained the same way,” Hicks told Military Times.
Further installation-level reviews, she added, will help DoD figure out where to place their new, dedicated prevention staff.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.