Military chief alarmed at rise in rape and sexual assault reports among girls under 18 in armed forces

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The UK's military chief has described as "truly shocking" figures shared by an MP that showed a tenfold increase in the number of girls under 18 in the armed forces reporting cases of rape and sexual assault to the military police.

General Sir Nick Carter said - at the same as working to improve behaviours - the army encouraged a "laddish culture" in part because "ultimately our soldiers have to go close and personal with the enemy".

He told MPs: "What you've got to try and do is square both these outputs and that is what we have to work on."

The comments came during more than two hours of questioning by Parliament's defence select committee on Tuesday in his final appearance as Chief of the Defence Staff before he retires at the end of the month.

General Carter also revealed that he had suffered damage to his hearing after riding around in noisy armoured vehicles without adequate ear protection during more than 40 years in the military.

On the collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the withdrawal of UK and other NATO forces, General Carter said it was not a defeat but a political failure.

He suggested that he might be open to a government inquiry, telling MPs: "There are lots of lessons we can learn".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly rejected calls for a public inquiry.

In a line of questioning about women in defence, the military chief was asked about a defence select committee report into cases of assault and harassment experienced by servicewomen, published over the summer.

General Carter said the findings did not surprise him.

"What it did for me is to recognise that we've still got an extraordinarily long way to go as organisations to get after this issue," the Chief of the Defence Staff said during a lengthy grilling by the committee on a range of topics that also included failings in Afghanistan and the army's hugely problematic £5.5 billion light armoured tank programme.

He was asked by Labour MP Derek Twigg about separate freedom of information requests revealing the rise in reports of sexual assault and rape reported by under-18-year-old girls in the armed forces to the military police between 2015 and 2020.

"It's truly shocking," the top military officer said

General Carter said that tackling the problems faced by women and other minorities in defence was about leadership.

He said the heads of all three services understood this.

"The trick now is how you cascade that level of commitment down the chain of command to get people right at the face of what we are talking about to understand that this is totally unacceptable," he said.

"How we fix it - I think we have a sense of, but we have to keep going at it hard."

His comments came after Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, held an extraordinary meeting with senior army generals on Monday over concerns about the treatment of women as well as other challenges in the service, which prompted a decision to launch a "culture audit".

MPs spent a lot of time grilling General Carter on the Afghanistan debacle.

He revealed that he had been pushing in January, to fellow military chiefs in NATO, the idea of allied forces staying in Afghanistan beyond an initial US exit date of 1 May and trying to influence the US to stay beyond the ultimate withdrawal date of 31 August.

"I was already indicating that we needed to be thinking differently," he said.

In at-times heated exchanges, he defended the army's Ajax light tank programme, which has left a number of soldiers with hearing difficulties because of the noise it emits and vibrations it makes.

An angry-looking Mark Francois, a Conservative MP and former defence minister, asked him: "As a professional military officer would you want to go to war in a tank that makes you deaf?"

The military chief replied: "I think I already have done… Having been brought up in the FV432 and then - bless it - the Warrior as both a commanding officer and a brigade commander, I very well know that the quality of hearing protection that I received was perhaps not as great as it could be."

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