Gen. Mark A. Welsh III

Gen. Mark A. Welsh III (Anthony Sanchelli/Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — Efforts to stop military sexual assaults are not working, and officials need to spur a culture change, the presumptive Air Force Chief of Staff told Congress on Thursday.

Gen. Mark Welsh III, during his confirmation hearing, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he is dismayed by continued reports of rapes and sexual assault, despite a focus in recent years on eliminating the problem.

“What we’ve been doing is not working,” he said. “We have to look differently at the problem. I think we’ve worked hard and made progress with victim care ... but we haven’t been able to stop the perpetrators.”

The comments came in response to questions about the Lackland Air Force base scandal, where at least 31 female recruits reported being sexually assaulted by instructors.

Welsh, outgoing commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, called the alleged actions of instructors “horrible” and “completely unacceptable,” and said he supports the Air Force’s handling of the investigation so far.

He noted that Air Force officials over the last two years have focused on “bystander intervention” programs to stop sexual assaults, and Pentagon officials have expanded protections and support services for victims over the same stretch.

But he also noted that service officials are still projecting about 600 sexual assault reports for 2012, highlighting the continued scope of the problem.

“Anytime this happens it’s horrible,” he said, “and we’re not doing enough to stop it.”

Welsh said he’ll to look into harsher punishment for minor assault and harassment cases. He also said he wants to explore better tools to screen young recruits with possible predator tendencies, although he admitted that he’s unsure if any such test even exists.

“Anything that can be seen as a deterrent force may help suppress the people who commit this crime,” he said. “If we can stop the crime, everything else becomes easier. That should be the goal.”

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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