POLITICS
05/10/2016 05:00 am ET

Uncle Sam Needs Coders. Here's How The Military Could Draft Them.

Defense experts say we could -- and should -- register mid-career experts.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images
In the next emergency, the Pentagon may need to pull in many specialized experts now in civilian life. 

Could Uncle Sam track down and draft a dozen 30-something computer programmers if the Army suddenly needed them?

Not yet. But the idea’s out there.

The Selective Service System should be drastically redesigned to meet the demands of modern war, according to a small but notable chorus of defense analysts and congressional lawmakers.

Leap past the latest controversy over whether young women should be registered for the draft alongside their male counterparts. What if the Selective Service was authorized to register both men and women between the ages of 25 and 45, listing them by professional or technical expertise?

Then in a national emergency, the Pentagon could rapidly find people with needed skills who were not in the ranks. After a massive cyber attack on communications systems, for instance, the military might require a fast infusion of engineers to repair satellites and rebuild software. Plus, hackers to identify and track the perpetrators and advise on counter-attacks. And social media specialists to temporarily bypass damaged systems.

Such sophisticated skills aren’t common among the military’s usual recruits. “You can’t just grab any kid out of high school and put him in charge of a $6 million piece of equipment,” said Richard S. Flahaven, associate director of the Selective Service System.

But if civilian experts were already registered, the Selective Service could find them in a heartbeat. These older recruits might serve as civilians -- bypassing bootcamp, shaved heads and saluting -- and sign on for short-term stretches, say six months to two years.

By enabling people to offer their services without committing to the full rigors of military life, a general registration for national service might even help close the rift between civilian America and those few who volunteer to serve in uniform.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the idea is widely popular.

SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images
U.S. Army soldiers run during an air assault training course in Dongducheon, South Korea.

The Defense Department has already acknowledged that it faces a severe shortage of skilled cyberspace personnel, which hasn’t been resolved by its usual methods of recruitment. The Pentagon’s cyber force won’t be fully manned until 2018, and even then it will rely in emergencies on an anticipated “surge” of 2,000 part-timers from the National Guard and other Reserves.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has not called for any kind of national registration of civilian experts. But he has begun publicly exploring new ways to coax outsiders into temporary duty.

On March 30, Carter spoke of reaching beyond traditional sources of manpower -- that is, the 18- to 21-year-olds who make up most of the military’s inductees. “Certainly, specialty jobs, like cybersecurity -- we need to be looking at ways to bring in more qualified people, even if they’re already in the middle of their career, rather than just starting out,” he said in a speech at Abington High School in Abington, Pennsylvania.

The military is also short of more prosaic specialists. In a national emergency -- such as a domestic chemical or biological attack -- the U.S. Army would need additional technical and scientific support; experts in rapid road and rail logistics, fuel distribution and water purification; and more drone operators and police, according to a recent readiness study. The Pentagon jobs board currently suggests other shortages: IT specialists, management analysts and health techs.

These are all jobs that civilians could fill in emergencies, expanding the Pentagon’s capabilities or replacing military personnel diverted to combat missions. But that civilian expertise can be so specialized that it makes no sense to recruit these professionals into the active-duty force and then idle them until needed.

Current steps to fill the military’s gaps include a program enabling mid-career professionals to work at the Pentagon for up to two years in the Defense Digital Service. Under another initiative, the Defense Department’s cyberwar chief, Adm. Michael Rogers, is offering a “bug bounty” to “trusted hackers” to probe Pentagon systems for vulnerabilities.

It could be medical positions, we could need cyber warriors -- there are all sorts of positions we’d need the country to mobilize for. Rep. Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot

Military veterans and others suggest the Pentagon needs to think bigger. The idea of drafting civilian experts came up recently in a Capitol HIll debate about whether women should be required to register for the draft.

Don’t think of drafting men and women just for the infantry, urged Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a former Air Force fighter pilot who led a squadron of A-10 attack jets in combat in Afghanistan.

“If our nation’s interests were at stake to the point where we had to call up the Selective Service, individuals would be put in positions they’re qualified for and capable to fill,” McSally said during a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee. “It could be medical positions, we could need cyber warriors -- there are all sorts of positions we’d need the country to mobilize for.”

The concept was also recently endorsed by David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who was the top commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, and Nora Bensahel, a defense policy analyst. In an essay posted on War on the Rocks, a website for foreign policy and national security issues, they wrote that new kinds of conflicts “may require conscripting the nation’s best experts at code writing, hacking, and cyber security.” To wage economic warfare, the U.S. might need to pull in financial experts and market analysts, they said.

Indeed, a national draft could summon people to work anywhere in the federal government in times of emergency. If the financial system were under cyber attack, say, bankers might be drafted to serve at the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Commerce.

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U.S. Marine Corps drill instructors put new recruits through their paces on Parris Island, South Carolina.

The very thought gladdens those laboring in the drab headquarters of the Selective Service, which is housed in a Virginia office building not far from the Pentagon. Among the skeleton 27-person staff, there is a firm conviction that drawing up a national registry of professionals and other experts is both a sensible plan and something they could do with ease.

“Of course we could!” exclaimed Associate Director Flahaven, an Army veteran who wears a suit with a vest and key chain to the office.

The Selective Service now maintains a databank of 17 million names and contact information for men between the ages of 18 and 25 who have registered. Even in what the staff admits is “deep standby” status, an annual budget of around $22.5 million funds the administrators and data processors who manage the registration process. A small army of 11,000 volunteers work part-time on local Selective Service boards, which process appeals for exemptions.

If Congress authorized a new registration process for older experts, Flahaven said, the agency would begin by spreading the word that “if you are of a certain age and within the past 12 months you have worked in the following fields, you must register.”

That databank would require regular updating -- the skills and addresses of adults do change over time -- but otherwise it could sit ready for years, Flahaven said. Scrambling to locate and register experts from scratch in a crisis would take months or longer.

The associate director may be quick to engage this idea because the vision of a different kind of draft registration isn’t exactly new to him. Back in the early 1990s, Flahaven said, the Selective Service staff put together a plan on how they could register Americans by profession or expertise. They took their proposal to the Pentagon.

It didn’t go well.

I briefed them on how we could register, say, linguists and computer professionals. They weren’t interested at all,” Flahaven recalled somewhat sourly. “They said they didn’t have any shortages.”

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President Ronald Reagan toyed with the idea of a national registration for health care professionals.

Ironically, it was President Ronald Reagan, the self-proclaimed foe of big government, who came closest to engineering a national registration of experts. In 1987, he asked the Selective Service to draw up a plan to register health care professionals to help resolve the military’s shortage of doctors and nurses. The agency readied a blueprint to find 3.4 million doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians and others from 60 medical specialties and require them to sign up at their local post offices.

Long before cyber warfare was anybody’s concern, the military worried about having enough health care providers. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, some 30,000 medical professionals had to be drafted, one way or another. The Selective Service found doctors and nurses by scouring state medical licensing boards. “We gave ‘em a deal they couldn’t refuse: a commission [as an officer] and a two-year commitment,” said Flahaven.

Some 83 of those 30,000 individuals actually refused the offer, he said. They were drafted anyway and put in the Army as buck privates, the military’s lowest rank.

But Reagan never gave the order to set in motion a medical registration. The 1987 plan sits on a shelf gathering dust, along with much else at the Selective Service.

Traditionally, the draft was aimed at hauling in young men to serve in combat. Draftees swelled the ranks in the Civil War, the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. As the Vietnam conflict wound down, the Pentagon ended the draft in 1973. Since then, although registration continues, the military has relied solely on recruiting volunteers, a system that has proved costly but effective in obtaining high school grads.

The all-volunteer force, as it’s known, is now so entrenched in Pentagon culture that The Huffington Post could find no one in the Defense Department who would admit to even thinking about draft registration. Instead, after some prodding, the Pentagon issued a statement saying that the status quo is good enough.

The ability of the all-volunteer force to recruit, retain, and assign personnel with critical skills will continue to improve,” the statement said. It suggested that the Pentagon would make “increased use of lateral entry” to obtain those skills. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Marine Lt. Col. Gabrielle M. Hermes, said “lateral entry” meant bringing in experts from the civilian world.

The United States has always been a lousy predictor, so we get caught with our pants down. Richard Flahaven, associate director of the Selective Service System

That cautious approach seems out of sync with the ways that war is changing. Today there is less likelihood of massive clashes of infantry, armor and artillery. In the war with the self-described Islamic State, the U.S. relies not on large troop formations but on pinpoint airstrikes, small special-operations units, and experts who can put financial, trade, political, social and intelligence pressure on the enemy. The Chinese talk about “unrestricted warfare,” in which their military would unleash such economic, political and social attacks as equals to the traditional armed effort.  

So further thought about how to identify Americans with the greater range of skills needed by the military might well be a sound idea. But even as some lawmakers are on it, others are calling to shut down the Selective Service altogether as a useless historical oddity and 21st-century waste of money.

Many Americans no doubt would agree, for the draft has always been unpopular. Our history with involuntary military service is bookended by the anti-draft riots of the Civil War and widespread resistance during the Vietnam War.

Nonetheless, Flahaven and his colleagues at the Selective Service are waiting for the phone to ring with new marching orders. The agency’s $22.5 million “is decimal dust” in the federal budget of $3.8 trillion, he said. “You couldn’t get a fully armed helicopter for that.”

But you could get a very long list of names and addresses, to be consulted if Uncle Sam ever needed it.

As then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates once observed, the United States has a perfect record of predicting the location and nature of future wars: 100 percent wrong. So the grim view from the Selective Service is that sooner or later, the nation will need those names -- of people who can fight on land, sea and cyberspace.

The United States has always been a lousy predictor,” said Flahaven, “so we get caught with our pants down.” But right now, he said, “nobody’s listening.”

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