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Although national security is a key issue among candidates vying for
the White House, one federal agency responsible for helping maintain
U.S. military readiness won’t see its role change much no matter who
wins the presidency Nov. 7.
Through thick and thin, dangerous times and peaceful ones, the
Selective Service System has remained a largely unnoticed, sometimes controversial, but important component of national defense.
Nevertheless, shrinking defense budgets coupled with proclamations of reduced foreign threats to the U.S. in the foreseeable future have led some to question whether or not the country’s military draft agency should continue even to exist.
“Historically, a draft has been employed to counter foreign threats, maintain large standing non-volunteer forces and to demonstrate U.S. resolve,” Richard Flahavan, chief of governmental affairs for the Selective Service System told WorldNetDaily.
Currently, American males are required to register for a military draft when they reach their 18th birthday. Any new military draft would involve young men ages 18 to 25 first.
But critics charge that in the absence of direct, predictable national security threats, the nation’s all-volunteer force structure has served the country well. They say that since President Richard Nixon abolished mandatory military service in 1973, U.S. national security has not suffered because of it; the all-volunteer force structure erected in the draft’s wake has always given policymakers and presidents enough manpower to get the job done.
Most recently, analysts and experts point to the 1991 Persian Gulf War as the best example yet of military readiness accomplished with an all-volunteer force. The U.S. managed to field nearly 500,000 troops as well as the ships, planes, tanks and weapons to equip them, while still maintaining forces in other parts of the world.
And — in part because of a common perception among lawmakers and policy analysts that the U.S. is the sole remaining and undisputed superpower in the world — there have been efforts to kill off the Selective Service System as recently as last year.
The House Appropriations subcommittee, in its initial budget recommendations for Fiscal Year 2000, proposed cutting funding for Selective Service by 60 percent, with the remaining funds earmarked to close the agency altogether. However, the measure did not survive the budget negotiations process, though closure of the agency remains a priority for some lawmakers.
The critics are missing the big picture, Selective Service officials insist. Instead of seeing the agency as a drag on national security or as an anachronism, they say, Americans instead should view the agency more like a fire department — out of sight and out of mind when times are good, but ready to respond in an emergency.
The Pentagon also is not keen on killing off Selective Service.
On July 30, 1999, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers they were opposed to “any funding reductions of the Selective Service System” because such reductions would “compromise its ability to respond to mobilization challenges of the Department of Defense.”
Two years earlier, in September 1997, Congress’ auditing arm, the General Accounting Office, concluded that placing the agency in “deep standby” meant incurring additional time and resources to conduct a draft after “agency denigration,” time the U.S. may not have in today’s world of hyper-fast warfare. Selective Service officials noted that the study was conducted with a simple reduction of agency preparedness; it did not take into account the time and resources that would be needed if the agency was completely abolished.
And, in 1994, a joint agency task force led by the National Security Council concluded that Selective Service and peacetime registration were still required as part of overall defense strategy — a position shared by President Clinton in 1995.
Despite the relatively small cost to maintain the agency — Flahavan said recent annual budgets have varied between $23 million and $25 million — as well as its vital defense role, critics still decry the agency as being a waste and, perhaps, even unconstitutional.
Responding to criticism that Selective Service and the very nature of a draft is undemocratic and unconstitutional, Flahavan said the Founding Fathers clearly envisioned a time when one would be needed to defend the nation.
“The preamble of the Constitution states that, ‘We the people … [shall] provide for the common defense,'” he noted. “By including these words, the framers established the principle that protecting our nation from hostile threats is a shared responsibility that rests foremost on able-bodied Americans.”
Others have charged that with the end of the Cold War, the agency and a draft are no longer needed or envisioned.
However, he said, “the world is still a dangerous and uncertain place, with American forces committed to many hot spots.” Besides, the agency points out, the U.S. has dramatically reduced the size of its standing armed forces, closed many bases and has failed to attract the “quality and numbers” of new recruits through volunteer enlistments.
In fact, Flahavan noted, some officials believe the Selective Service System could eventually be used to draft personnel to make up for chronic recruitment shortages endemic to most all military branches — with the exception of the Marine Corps — over the past five years or so.
“For these reasons and many others, it’s prudent to maintain Selective Service registration as the nation’s defense manpower insurance policy,” he said.
“To abandon this system would be to place America at greater risk.”
Flahavan also said that Selective Service has a positive impact on voluntary recruiting.
For one thing, he said, by having to register for the draft, young men are reminded of their potential military obligation to the country. Also, the Selective Service System provides a complete list of new registrants to the Department of Defense, which then uses it to mail recruiting information to young men. The list is also given to local recruiters for follow-up because it is “the most accurate list of young men available from any source.”
Opponents of Selective Service who say that even the military doesn’t envision any realistic scenario where a draft would be necessary are possibly misinformed, the agency said.
For instance, the Army — the service most likely to need draftees in a crisis — is currently short about 7,000 recruits; the most recent figures said it could fall 10,000 recruits short of its congressionally mandated strength of 480,000 personnel by the end of Fiscal Year 2000.
At a cost of about $12,000 per recruit, the “all-volunteer Army is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain,” the agency said, so “the prospect of a limited draft to make up for what recruiters are unable to fill is an option being explored.”
The Army is similarly concerned about a shortage of doctors, nurses and medical technicians, said the agency. “In a war with mass casualties, the Army may have no option but to ask for a draft of health-care personnel to fill vacancies” — an option that was being explored as early as 1996.
Opponents are also critical of the fact that only men have to register. In an increasingly gender-integrated military, they argue, women should be made to register as well.
In fact, the agency said that when President Carter revived military draft registration in 1980, he asked Congress to mandate male and female registration. But Congress refused, citing a Department of Defense policy against placing women in combat. The policy has since been challenged in court, but in 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could exclude women from having to register.
“However, should Congress ever change this policy, Selective Service is fully capable of responding,” Flahavan said.
Women could be drafted — perhaps as nurses, doctors and medical personnel — without being required to register, the agency said.