"I've seen the numbers, and we have a problem," Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, commandant of cadets, said Thursday following a stern address to 4,000 cadets at the academy near Colorado Springs.
Weida's harsh words come as a new Defense Department survey reports that nearly one in five female Air Force Academy cadets say they have been sexually assaulted in their time at the academy.
A department official who had read the results, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the questionnaire administered this year showed that 109 of the 579 female cadets surveyed, or 18.8 percent, said they had been sexually assaulted in their time at the academy. Sexual assault was defined as anything from unwanted touching to rape.
In 89 percent of the cases, the alleged assailant was identified as another cadet.
The survey also said that 11 percent of senior female cadets and 3 percent of freshman female cadets reported having been the victim of rape or attempted rape since enrolling at the academy.
The survey is part of Pentagon Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz' probe, one of three investigations into female cadets' claims that academy leaders were complacent when they raised allegations of rape or sexual assault, and in some cases punished the purported victim.
Although the survey results are considered to be preliminary, Air Force and academy officials acknowledged the severity of the problem.
In a statement, academy superintendent Lt. Gen. John A. Rosa said he had reviewed preliminary information in a summary of the inspector general's report.
"It is conclusive that we have a problem," he said. "It is also clear that we have to address the problem, and we have to address it now."
In his speech to cadets, Weida, brandishing a sword, warned that the misconduct had tarnished the academy's reputation.
"If we don't reverse this trend, the very existence of this institution is threatened," he said.
In a statement, Air Force officials said the survey results were consistent with data compiled through an internal review and supports the sweeping changes implemented by Air Force Secretary James Roche this year, including replacing the top academy leaders.
Annual academy surveys conducted from 1996 to 2002 — with the exception of 1999 — indicated between 11 percent and 19 percent of female cadets reported having been sexually assaulted since enrolling at the academy.
Roche downplayed the validity of the earlier surveys since they were not scientifically conducted but said they should have raised red flags for academy leaders. This month, he demanded regular reports and the use of surveys so he can monitor the effectiveness of the changes.
"We will chart a fundamentally different course for the academy," the Air Force said. "And most importantly, we are going to closely monitor our progress as we move forward."
The survey results have also been given to an independent panel created by Congress to investigate the academy conduct.
The survey results were first reported by The Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
A second survey was administered to cadets on Wednesday and a third is expected this fall. The upcoming survey will also be given to cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to compare the climate at the three academies, Weida said.
The inspector general's report containing the survey results is expected to be released in December.