By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, May 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Department said on Thursday the estimated number of sexual assaults in the military climbed nearly 38 percent in 2018 compared with a survey two years earlier, data that critics say laid bare broken Pentagon promises of a crackdown.
The Pentagon said there were 6,053 reports of sexual assaults last year, according to an anonymous, bi-annual survey. It is the highest since the U.S. military began collecting this kind of survey data in 2004.
Taking into consideration unreported cases as well, the military survey estimated 20,500 male and female service members experienced some kind of sexual assault last year. The estimated number in 2016 was 14,900.
The campaign against sexual assault in the military again gained momentum in March when Republican Senator Martha McSally, the first female combat pilot in the U.S. Air Force, said she had been raped by a superior officer. She said she did not report it because she blamed herself and did not trust the system.
McSally said she would introduce legislation in the next few weeks that would incorporate many of the recommendations made by Pentagon officials highlighting the need for dedicated, trained and experienced counsels, advocates and investigators, and called for military lawyers and investigators to be teamed up from the beginning.
"I believe this is a readiness issue," McSally said after the report's release. "And just like when we have other readiness issues where we need bombs and bullets and training hours, we need to invest more resources into this process to make sure that we're addressing the shortfalls that we've seen throughout the different bases I visited and talking to others."
The odds of a woman in the U.S. military between the ages of 17 and 20 being sexually assaulted were one in eight, the report said.
"It is time for Congress to stop giving the failing military leadership the benefit of doubt and pass real reform empowering military prosecutors. Enough is enough," said Don Christensen, a retired colonel and former chief Air Force prosecutor who now leads the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
The Pentagon said it was going to make changes to deal with the spike.
"To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other," acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a memo. "This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better."
In a briefing on Thursday, a senior official told reporters the Pentagon was looking to make sexual harassment a crime in the military, something that would potentially elevate the punishment.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic presidential candidate who has been an advocate for overhauling rules for prosecution of sex crimes in the U.S. military, said the report made clear that it was time for Congress to act.
"Sexual assaults continue to increase dramatically while the number of cases going to trial goes down," she said. "The status quo is not working." (Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Makini Brice and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Trott)
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