WASHINGTON—The U.S. military is intensifying its focus on ethics training in the wake of a series of investigations of military brass, the Pentagon's top uniformed officer said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that as part of this new emphasis, the military needs to place more importance on officers' character when weighing promotions.
"The Joint Chiefs and I are concerned and committed to ensuring that our military leaders of all ranks uphold the trust that we've established with the American people," he said in an interview last week. "This has my full attention."
The military has been rocked in recent months by a wide-ranging Navy contracting scandal, involving allegations of bribes, as well as by high-profile sexual assault cases and other probes.
Last week, the Air Force announced that a test-cheating scandal involving nuclear missile crews was more widespread than previously thought, with 92 junior officers suspended in connection with cheating allegations.
In the interview, Gen. Dempsey said he and the military service chiefs were working together on a series of initiatives that will place a renewed focus on military ethics.
A spokesman for Gen. Dempsey, Col. Ed Thomas, said the heightened attention to ethics wasn't due to publicity over the most recent scandals, but because the military has entered a postwar transition, when it traditionally becomes more introspective.
Defense officials also noted that the military is aggressively policing itself, and said nearly all of the recent accusations of wrongdoing have come to light as the result of military investigations.
In 2012, following a series of cases of improper behavior by top officers, Gen. Dempsey was assigned by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to conduct a wide-ranging ethics review. The Joint Staff's new ethics campaign is being overseen by Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, a former top aide to Mr. Panetta.
The military has sent teams to meet with three-star and four-star generals to review their procedures for accepting gifts, travel practices and other issues. There are approximately 190 three- and four-star generals and admirals.
Gen. Dempsey said the training isn't just for top officers, and noted that ethics units also have been added to all military education schools.
A new Joint Ethics Review Board also is examining current policies to identify rules that need clarification or revision, said Col. Thomas.
In addition, the Joint Staff has pushed the military services to overhaul how they prepare future leaders. Pentagon officials have been developing a new kind of performance review that will use peer and subordinate comments to provide feedback to officers.
Known as 360-degree reviews, these evaluations are controversial within the military. Legal restrictions likely will block the use of anonymous comments by subordinates in consideration of promotions. But Col. Thomas said that the reviews would help officers identify and correct behavior that could cause problems later in their careers.
The recent ethical lapses, Gen. Dempsey said, weren't directly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he said the high rate of deployments of officers and the need to focus on training for the next tours of duty have resulted in the military spending less time reinforcing professional standards.
"It is not the war that has caused this," said Gen. Dempsey. "It is the pace, and our failure to understand that at that pace, we were neglecting the tools that manage us as a profession over time."
Gen. Dempsey said the military was entering a period of self-reflection, as it has following the conclusion of other recent conflicts.
"We are engaged in a deep and broad assessment of [our] profession," Gen. Dempsey said. "About every 20 years the profession tends to become introspective, and in between it is much less than it needs to be."
Gen. Dempsey said the military should "rebalance" how it assesses and promotes officers. During the war, the emphasis was on selecting leaders with battlefield confidence above all else. "When you are in the middle of a conflict that is consuming the readiness of the force, you naturally value competence and potentially undervalue character. What you see now is a rebalancing," he said. "This isn't about flipping a light switch—but about rebalancing the way we value attributes in our leaders."
David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general and defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said: "Coming out of these two wars the military is going to have to put a spotlight on discipline, standards and accountability, from generals to privates."
Military leaders are trying to determine "what are the underlying causes—is it hubris, is it a sense of entitlement, is it the stress of being at war?" he said. "The jury is out; they haven't come to any conclusions."