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Selective Service Lacks Staff To Carry Out Military Draft, GAO Reports

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

WASHINGTON -- The Selective Service System is so understaffed after years of budget cuts that gathering the first inductees to boot camp would take nine months if military conscription were reinstated, according to a new report.

A Government Accountability Office report says the shrunken agency would need 285 days, not the 193 days required by the Department of Defense, to draft the first inductees after a mobilization order by Congress. It also says the Pentagon has no idea whether it would need the full 100,000 inductees currently required within 210 days "or even whether draftees would play any role in a military mobilization" because the Defense Department hasn't updated its requirements since 1994.

Next year marks the 40-year anniversary of the all-volunteer U.S. military, but as every young man turning 18 knows, draft registration lives on. Seen by military leaders as a insurance policy in case of crisis, Selective Service requires all men -- but not women -- between the ages of 18 and 25 to be registered for the draft. Under the law, males must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

Congress and the president would have to authorize an actual military draft, which would be done by lottery and carried out by 2,000 local draft boards staffed by 11,000 volunteers.

Not that elected officials, even the most hawkish, dare support the draft's return. In 2004, as the Iraq war ground on, Congress voted overwhelmingly against a bill to reinstate conscription.

Some lawmakers have even called for abolishing registration altogether. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Tea Party Republican from Colorado who served as a Marine officer in the Gulf War, has called Selective Service "an outdated program" that has cost more than $700 million since the draft ended. "It is time for it to go," said Coffman.

Congress suspended registration in the late 1970s but reinstated it in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1999, registration hit a low of 87 percent of eligible males. Compliance began to rise just before the 9/11 attacks, and in 2010, according to GAO, the estimated registration rate was 92 percent, with about 16.4 million names on file.

Selective Service doesn't actually measure compliance at age 18; it looks at age 20, when the young men become eligible to be drafted. Although failing to register can bring up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, registration dodgers are rarely prosecuted.

Since 1997, Selective Service's budget has "declined steadily in constant dollars," GAO reports. In that year, Selective Service received $22.9 million, or $31.5 million in today's dollars. The Obama administration has requested $24.4 million in the fiscal 2013 budget.

The GAO report says Selective Service officials have expressed concern that the current staff of 130 full-time civilians and 175 part-time military reservists "cannot meet [the Defense Department]'s requirements to deliver inductees without jeopardizing the fairness and equity of the draft."

Registration for the draft has become increasingly automated in recent years. Motor vehicle departments in 39 states and the District of Columbia now link driver's license applications with draft registration. The federal government also can plumb Social Security and Census records for a registration database.

But Selective Service officials told GAO that those databases "might not lead to a fair and equitable draft because they would not be as complete and would therefore put some portions of the population at a higher risk of being drafted than others." Not everyone drives, and non-citizen residents, who are eligible for the draft, lack Social Security numbers.

The Pentagon has given itself until Dec. 1 to analyze its manpower needs for Selective Service and could decide the agency is superfluous. The GAO report includes estimates of budget savings if Selective Service is ended or put into "deep standby."

That's unlikely -- even though military leaders oppose bringing back the draft, which would also bring unwilling warriors.

"The volunteer force has been very effective, and I think it's one of the best volunteer forces in the world," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last fall. "But I think at the same time, that we always need to have the capability to reach out if we have to, if we face a major crisis in this country. And for that reason, I would continue that process of having everyone continue to register."

Thomas Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who argues a draft would be good for the nation disconnected from the human price of military action, said the GAO report doesn't worry him.

"If we ever did resume the draft, it would need to be very different from the present system that we know from the Vietnam War," he told The Huffington Post in an email. "Women would need to be subject to the draft. Also, there likely should be some sort of libertarian opt-out. And the military would resist a draft vigorously. So a lot of overhaul would be needed before the machinery was turned on."