Are the Selective Service System and the Draft Still Needed?

GAO Asks DOD to Review Selective Service System

Men burning their draft cards during Vietnam War
Men Burn Draft Cards in Vietnam War Protest. Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

Right off the top—and this is important—the Selective Service System is still very much in business and registering for the draft is still very much a law with some very nasty teeth.

However, based on its evaluation of the costs and capabilities of the Selective Service System in the modern warfare environment, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) reevaluate its need for the Selective Service System.

What the Selective Service System Does

Since the enactment of the Selective Service Act in 1917, the Selective Service System—an independent agency in the executive branch of government—has been charged with establishing and maintaining all processes necessary for conducting a military draft in a fair, transparent, and credible manner.

The Selective Service System oversees the legal requirement that all men between ages 18 and 25 living in the U.S. register for the draft, should it be declared necessary, and maintains no-cost agreements with organizations that offer conscientious objectors alternate forms of service to the nation.

The Selective Service System maintains a database of qualified registrants from which it can provide manpower to the Department of Defense in the event Congress and the President of the United States determine that a war or national emergency requires more troops than are likely to volunteer for service.

The Selective Service System also distributes the names on its registration database to the various U.S. military services for recruiting purposes.

In addition, the Selective Service System maintains a network of unpaid volunteers who would review claims for deferment from military service in the event a draft is declared necessary by the president with the approval of Congress.

Who Wants Another Draft? Nobody

The military draft hasn't been used since 1973. Since then, an all-volunteer U.S. military has waged wars in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as conducting combat actions in Grenada, Beirut, Libya, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Yugoslavia and the Philippines—all without the necessity of a draft.

In addition, more than 350 U.S. military bases and installations around the nation have been closed since 1989 under the cost-saving Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program.

Despite a U.S. military that has been considerably "downsized" since the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense (DOD) remains committed to maintaining troop strength levels necessary to successfully fight at least two wars at the same time—as in Afghanistan and Iraq—with an all-volunteer force.

Congress doesn't want a military draft. In 2004, the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have required "all young persons in the United States, including women, perform a period of military service or a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security." The vote was 402-2 against the bill.

The U.S. military doesn't want a military draft. In 2003, the Department of Defense agreed with President George W. Bush that on modern, high-tech battlefields, a highly-trained professional military force made up totally of volunteers would fare better against the new "terrorist" enemy than a pool of draftees who had been forced to serve.

In a DOD opinion that remains unchanged today, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that draftees are "churned" through the military with only minimal training and a desire to leave the service as soon as possible.

In 2005, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly Chief of the Army Reserve, echoed Rumsfeld's opinion on the draft. "I came in the Army when there was a draft induced Army," he said while speaking to members of the 7th Army Reserve Command. "We had some awfully great soldiers during that time, we've had great soldiers throughout our history, but, today's all-volunteer Army is a higher quality force. Our President has said we will not have a draft and I agree with him."

What the GAO Found

Noting that the DOD had successfully depended on an all-volunteer military force since the draft was last used in 1973 and has continued to emphasize its intentions to employ an all-volunteer force in the future, the GAO recommended that the DOD reevaluate its need to continue maintaining the Selective Service System.

As part of its investigation, the GAO considered alternatives including leaving the system unchanged, maintaining the Selective Service System in a "deep standby" mode, and doing away with the Selective Service System altogether. GAO evaluated the costs of each alternative and how they might impact the DOD's ability to maintain adequate troop levels.

To the alternative of leaving the system unchanged, Selective Service officials expressed concern that at its current congressionally approved funding level; the Selective Service System would be unable to meet DOD's requirements to deliver inductees without jeopardizing the fairness and equity of the draft.

GAO determined that maintaining the Selective Service System as-is would cost about $24.4 million a year, compared to $17.8 million for running it in a deep standby mode in which only the basic registration database would be maintained. Doing away with the Selective Service System would, of course, result in an annual savings of $24.4 million. However, Selective Service officials estimated that costs for closing the agency and terminating employees and existing contracts would total approximately $6.5 million in the first year.

Selective Service officials told the GAO that if placed in standby mode, it would take about 830 (2.3 years) days to actually hold a draft and provide the DOD with inductees. This time frame would increase to 920 days if the Selective Service System were deactivated. If maintained as-is and at its current funding level, Selective Service stated that it could begin supplying inductees within 193 days.

In addition, Selective Service suggested that in the event the system were placed in standby mode or deactivated, the costs to hold a draft could exceed $465 million.

Selective Service officials stressed the importance of at least maintaining a draft registration database as a "low-cost insurance policy in case a draft is ever necessary." While acknowledging that other government-maintained databases could be used, these databases might not result in a fair and equitable draft, thus putting some portions of the population at a higher risk of being drafted than others.

Both the DOD and Selective Service told the GAO that the mere presence of a draft registration system demonstrates America's "feeling of resolve" to potential enemies.

The GAO also recommended that should the DOD decide to maintain the Selective Service system in some form, it should establish an ongoing process of periodically reevaluating the need for the service.

In written comments to the GAO, the DOD agreed.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Are the Selective Service System and the Draft Still Needed?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Longley, Robert. (2020, August 26). Are the Selective Service System and the Draft Still Needed? Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Are the Selective Service System and the Draft Still Needed?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).