Women and the Military Selective Service Act
Maj. Kelly M. Dickerson, U.S. Air Force
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These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this Nation the role of leader in freedom’s cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important. We stand for freedom.
—President John F. Kennedy, delivered before a joint session of Congress, 25 May 1961
In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a patriotic message to Congress requesting more funding to defend the freedom the United States represented abroad.1 His prophetic words on America’s role in the world ring true today as the United States of America continues to defend the democratic way of life, protecting and promoting the universal freedom upon which it was founded. To guarantee the continued success of this great Nation requires tangible lethality capable of immediate response: America’s preeminent military ready to support national objectives. In an emerging era of increasing great power tension, the military’s best option to support and defend national interests is to leverage the full force of the diverse American population by including men and women in the Selective Service registry.
Why is gender inclusion important to safeguarding American democratic society? Susan B. Anthony’s writings on women’s suffrage and the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union … and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity” link the unalienable right of all Americans to participate in the decision-making of government, as equal citizens under the law, with the preservation of America’s democratic system.2 The proclamations in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution confirmed the importance of the democracy that the United States represents still today to the rest of the world: freedom and equality for all. The importance of “for all” cannot be overemphasized as America endeavors to honor the foundational concept of inclusion and equality across gender and race in present day. In the event a world crisis resurrects the draft, these precious freedoms must be protected by the power of America’s complete population of eligible men and women.
In December 2021, the House of Representatives concurred with an amendment updating the Military Selective Service Act (MSSA) to include women in the Selective Service System (SSS), thereby applying the registration requirement to all Americans via the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). However, this did not pass the Senate, and the NDAA signed by President Joseph Biden does not require SSS registration of all Americans and instead maintains the requirement for men only. The MSSA and military draft remain valid policy options necessary to national security. The arguments surrounding the validity of the draft in America are both vast and visceral and will not be examined here. Including women in the draft system enhances deterrence, as demonstrated by the relationship of national interests to the MSSA, the lessons of other nations with universal conscription, and the interrelationship of demographics in the United States and its military.
First, there needs to be a definition of deterrence for the purpose of the following discussion. National strategies of deterrence evolved in the United States based on economic circumstances, foreign policy and geopolitical events, and societal pressure. Biden used the term “deterrence” in his 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance in the context of ensuring U.S. Armed Forces are equipped to deter adversaries.3 Deterrence in this article refers first to the United States’ ability to prevent and defeat any military attack on its geographical boundaries, and second to America’s ability to prevent and defeat any attack on its allies and partners. Deterrence is a broad effect capturing not only military lethality and readiness but also mass mobilization, logistics infrastructure, and power projection, among other components that enable the United States to stay ahead of its enemies.
What is the Military Selective Service Act?
The current MSSA requires only men ages eighteen to twenty-five to register basic information with the selective service. The SSS is an independent, non-Department of Defense agency that manages the draft system should the president identify the need to augment the all-volunteer military force in a national emergency.4 Selective service registration and the draft are two distinct entities. The SSS registration itself is the data component to the dormant draft system (the last draft ended in 1973) and only manages the records of men ages eighteen to twenty-five; upon age twenty-six the record is removed from the system. A national draft requires the president and Congress to formally initiate a draft lottery.5
The issue of requiring only men to register and participate in the draft already faced constitutionality challenges on the grounds of gender equality. Previous presidents attempted unsuccessfully to amend the NDAA to include women, such as President Jimmy Carter in the early 1980s and most recently President Barack Obama in 2017.6 Notably, after Carter recommended including women in the MSSA, the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of excluding women in the draft in 1981 when the decision of Rostker v. Goldberg ruled that only including men did not violate the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.7 The court’s ruling in 1981 reflected the legal exclusion of women in military combat positions during that period. The legal barriers preventing women from serving in combat roles are now eliminated and women today are eligible to serve in all combat positions.
How National Interests Intersect with the MSSA
Biden’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSSG) and subsequent National Military Strategy identify the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as America’s peer strategic competitor. The INSSG asserts that America must revitalize its advantages such as its democratic way of life to protect the security of the American people. The Department of Defense derives its strategy from the president’s National Security Strategy, referred to in military terminology as the national objectives, or “ends,” from which military strategy develops its approach and associated resources (“means”) to achieve those objectives. The secretary of defense’s 2018 National Defense Strategy leads with three lines of effort: building an even more lethal force, strengthening standing alliances and attracting new ones, and finally reforming the way the Department of Defense “does business” to achieve the national objectives.8 Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a 2021 message to the force consistent with the president’s INSSG naming the Department of Defense’s priorities to attain the national objectives and also identifying the PRC as the peer threat.
Quantitative comparison of the sheer size of American and PRC military forces shows the PRC total force estimate upward of two million while active-duty U.S. service members total just over 1.3 million; the PRC’s population is estimated at 1.4 billion and America’s at 332 million.9 The PRC’s military is a combination of conscription and voluntary service where mandatory conscription applies only to men. The military modernization campaign in the PRC matches its published strategy to become the world’s preeminent military. Recent military actions of the PRC in the South China Sea signal the Chinese Communist Party is actively pursuing hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region.10 National and defense strategy acknowledge the threat the PRC symbolizes to America’s tenets of freedom and democracy. The Department of State released a consolidated list of six activities the Chinese Communist Party is pursuing to increase its power and influence throughout the world, including “predatory economic practices” and “disregard for human rights,” which are directly contrary to America’s democratic ideals of shared economic prosperity and human dignity.11
Then secretary of the Army, Dr. Mark T. Esper, presented the Army vision and priorities at the Atlantic Council in 2018 and described the geopolitical environment as a “strategic inflection point,” similar to 1973 when the Army recognized that new doctrine and new equipment were required to meet evolving national security threats.12 This “inflection point” remains unchanged as the focus of warfare pivots from counterinsurgency to large-scale combat operations. Our military force must represent deterrent lethality to meet threats in all domains (air, land, space, cyberspace) at all levels. The total U.S. military force must be able to rapidly mobilize and deploy faster than the enemy, implying high levels of readiness across the military services. If the political objectives require military action in today’s environment, the price for war is high, and that cost must be shared throughout American society. An inclusive draft regardless of gender tightens the seams that bind society to its principles and the defense of its nation.
The Vietnam-era draft ended in January 1973, and since then, innumerable academic reviews provided poignant analysis. Most insightful among these retrospections is Dr. Curtis Tarr’s 1981 book By the Numbers: The Reform of the Selective Service System 1970-1972. Tarr served as director of the SSS from 1970 to 1971 and prefaced his book with Carter’s rally for a renewed draft to respond quickly to national emergency if required at the time.13 Two salient points prevail today from Tarr: military service to our Nation is a privilege and should never be punitive, and an all-volunteer force today demonstrates America’s commitment to the ideals on which it was founded.14 A draft registry is a linchpin for the military’s role to protect national security. The centralized, federally managed, and standardized system to organize and maintain registrants ages eighteen to twenty-five provided by the SSS satisfies this requirement. Tarr observes the need for a SSS registry reflective of the drafted demographic, and furthermore, the need for a well-regulated national draft system to avoid any institutional prejudice or preference to any demographic. The national draft system regulates exclusion categories, standardizing conscientious objector qualifications to remove perceived or real preferential treatment during application of a draft. The totality of the Vietnam-era draft implementation revealed areas of improvement to ensure that future drafts remain fair and equitable.
Nations with Active Draft Systems
The relationship between a nation’s government and compulsory service, or conscription, policy merits further examination outside of this review. U.S. society has a complex relationship with conscription from inception under British rule through the last draft during Vietnam War era. America’s transition from a hybrid draft-and-volunteer military was difficult emotionally, financially, and logistically. Many nations today employ varying degrees of conscription that match respective national objectives. It is notable that nations with active conscription models traverse the spectrum between democratic and autocratic nations. There is little academic evidence indicating conscription is more common or more institutionally enforced in less democratic nations, demonstrated by the following review of multiple nations’ conscription systems.
Israel and Norway successfully implemented universal drafts in their standing militaries, enforced at varied degrees to grow to their respective desired military personnel levels. Norway was the first NATO member to institute compulsory universal military service in 2015, and it subsequently increased the proportion of women in the Norwegian military ranks each year since.15 The Norwegian conscription registry system screener is a possible model for the United States to incorporate in the SSS registry screener. Initial assessment of the increase in the number of women serving in the Norwegian armed forces resulted from the universal conscription that drafted women who indicated interest in service and an increase in those who choose to remain in service beyond the initial twelve-month service period.16 The Norwegian armed forces and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) utilize registration questionnaires for their respective conscription models that screen for special skills to match individuals to service.
The conscription model in Israel is unique in its purpose and history. In 1948, the IDF was established nearly concurrently with its formal identification as a nation-state. Israel’s geographic location coupled with its religious society drives many of its unique national security objectives. Compulsory service has been universal in Israel since the inception of the IDF, effectively placing its military at the heart of its society. A National Public Radio broadcast conducted interviews with IDF soldiers on the sixtieth anniversary of its inception and the consensus of those who shared their stories demonstrated that IDF service is the shaping experience of young men and women in Israel.17 Service drives many relationships in personal and professional life among Israelis and there is an undeniable level of pride in the ability of its armed forces and associated success. Israeli citizens over the age of 18, with few exceptions, serve in the IDF; men for a minimum of thirty-two months and women for a minimum of twenty-four months.18 Reserve duty continues post-draft-service terms up to age fifty-one if the individual does not choose to make the service a career. The IDF website highlights the tradition of military service to the nation and its democratic principles, laws, and institutions.19 Compulsory service in Israel is a unifying experience among young men and women, who rally behind the national need for a highly trained defense force.
The concept of overmanning is especially important when considering the positive effect that a draft will have to perpetuate fully manned combat units.
There is some parallelism in autocratic nations and conscription that should be acknowledged if only to demonstrate the difference in each government and its relationship with its respective military forces. Freedom House evaluates countries around the world according to democratic freedoms, political rights, and civil rights, among other indicators. A review of countries with low democracy ratings demonstrates corresponding compulsory military conscription. For example, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are rated below ten on a 0 to 100 democracy percentage where 100 equals most democratic.20 All of these nations employ mandatory conscription for men. The democratic nations employing compulsory service explain exceptions and deferment policies publicly and maintain consistency in application of compulsory service; there is little to no evidence of standardized exception policies published by Iran, PRC, or Russia. Compulsory service in Iran begins at age eighteen for men (women are exempt); volunteers may join as early as sixteen.21 Russia’s conscription-based military requires registration at seventeen for males and continues through age twenty-seven with a one-year service period or a two-year contract instead; reserve obligations for men extend up to age fifty.22 The further difficulty discerning the compulsory service models of autocratic nations lies in the accuracy of the available data; it is not unreasonable to assume that there are higher levels of compulsory service versus volunteer service than publicly shared. These compulsory service models support the national interests of each country, and so should America’s draft structure to support the democratic principles of freedom when called upon.
Demographics in America and Its Military
The Congressional Budget Office’s 2021 update to The U.S. Military’s Force Structure reviewed the intended and unintended consequences of over and undermanning in three military departments: Army, Navy, and Air Force. Manning levels ultimately drive the number of units any military service can produce and affect the readiness and availability of those units to deploy.23 According to the report, around 10 percent of a unit is unable to deploy at a given time, implying that a combat unit often deploys below full strength. Overmanning a unit compensates for this accepted rate of 10 percent unable to deploy, theoretically producing a full-strength combat unit for war.24 The concept of overmanning is especially important when considering the positive effect that a draft will have to perpetuate fully manned combat units. Strong combat unit manning must be maintained to fight in a war where previously uncontested domains become contested. The Selective Service registry provides the adaptive plan to fill this need should the president activate the draft to augment or replace forces.
The 2020 Demographics report shows an increase in the number of women in the active duty Armed Forces since 2010; women now represent 17.2 percent of the active duty military today.25 The study showed that 80 percent of enlisted members obtained a high school diploma and/or some advanced degree experience, which is an overall increase in enlisted education levels since 2010.26 The positive trend in education level and representation of women bodes well for future force demographics (there is no correlation suggested here). In the consolidated military active duty and reserve demographics, 46.7 percent are single without children, 31.9 percent are married with children, 15.7 percent married without children, and 5.7 percent are single with children.27
The United States need not accept universal conscription, but a fair and equitable draft should it be necessary to increase the lethality of the military.
The purpose of including these demographics is to compare them with the greater American society. In December 2020 the U.S. Census Bureau released demographics regarding America’s families. Seventy-eight percent of parents with children were married in 2020, and the number of families with children under eighteen in the household dropped between 2000 and when the study released in 2020.28 Some critics of incorporating women in a draft refer to an emotional appeal painting the tragedy of taking a mother from her young children or a young daughter from her parents. The census study demonstrates that most draft-eligible eighteen-year-old Americans do not live at home. The study shows the average age of a first marriage is 30.5 for men and 28.1 for women, significantly different from the average respective ages in 1947 of 23.7 and 20.5.29 According to these statistics, most draft-eligible Americans are not married and do not live with their parents, indicating that their death may not rob a family of a wife or mother, but of a daughter or sister. None of these roles are more or less important nor will they mitigate the pain of the loss of a family member. However, the data reveals that many Americans, including women, are waiting to start families until later in life often to prioritize career progression or financial stability. Other critics question how a universal draft protects children if both parents are drafted. The original draft accounted for the preservation of a family line; a draft today can certainly implement controls to prevent drafting both parents of the same immediate children. Furthermore, dual military families today experience both parents deploying at the same time or single parents who deploy. There are control mechanisms to ensure the guardianship of children in these instances. The idea that a draft temporarily denies families of a mother is no more or no less important than the idea of temporarily denying a family of a father, brother, or son during military service. The Census demographics and Military OneSource study demonstrate that draft-eligible men and women are likely unmarried without children and no longer live with their parents.
Gender inclusion aligns with the legal and ethical principles of the United States in the present day. In 2017, the annual report for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel Readiness published the SSS’s willingness to include all the population in a draft by preparing a five-year phased plan to incorporate women into the registration should legislation direct it.30 Mobilization of a draft population requires precious resources (time, training, money) not easily accelerated to meet an urgent need in times of war.
The United States need not accept universal conscription, but a fair and equitable draft should it be necessary to increase the lethality of the military. America is a nation unified by its prevailing ideals of freedom. These freedoms require a ready military powered by the whole of the American people. The grim reality of war is the draft may be enacted in a national emergency to provide combat replacements due to high casualty rates.. The pain of war should not be limited to any demographic. Women participated in war since its inception and affirming women’s rights as equal citizens to participate in the nation’s defense can be further acknowledged in a universal SSS registration. The shared responsibility of the country’s defense is America’s to bear, and the country should feel it and see it across tax brackets, public and private enterprise, sons and daughters, and men and women alike. America thrived on its tradition of an all-volunteer military over the last fifty years. Including women in the SSS prepares the strongest, most lethal draft population possible. America’s adversaries may intend to supersede American military numbers, but they will not supersede the American population’s ability to adapt, innovate, and overcome. America is the beacon of democratic ideals in the world constantly striving to do right and to do better.
Securing America’s Future
Manning levels alone will not secure America’s outcome in a war with PRC, though they may level out the metaphorical players on the field; however, the ready SSS prepared to match America’s best and brightest men and women to military roles will certainly provide lethal insurance if it is needed. Preparing the draft enrollment system now to include the whole of the American population increases deterrence by demonstrating the ability to mobilize 100 percent of able Americans instead of just 50 percent.
The United States faces a world of peer competition filled with unknown threats, contested domains, and tensions that may conceivably hasten a national emergency requiring conscription. Americans demonstrated they do not take their inherited freedoms for granted, but this new era may challenge them in other ways. The country faces a challenge now to match a superior strategy to its named peer threat, the PRC. Future war will likely cross traditional geographic and man-made domains (air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace), signaling the need for superior lethal military power to generate success by deterring adversaries. This lethality must be insured by a robust SSS draft that includes women. Including women in a draft cements equal opportunity for both genders to contribute fully to the national security of the United States.
- “The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription,” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, accessed 31 January 2022, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript.
- Joseph R. Biden, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (Washington, DC: The White House, March 2021), accessed 5 May 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf.
- “It’s Your Country,” Selected Service System, accessed 30 September 2021, https://www.sss.gov/.
- “Why Is Selective Service Important?,” Selected Service System, accessed 30 September 2021, https://www.sss.gov/register/why-is-selective-service-important/.
- Scott, Eugene. “Obama Signs onto Women Registering for Selective Service,” CNN, 2 December 2016, accessed 20 July 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/02/politics/women-selective-service-obama/index.html.
- “Why Aren’t Women Required to Register?,” Selective Service System, accessed 30 September 2021, https://www.sss.gov/register/women/.
- Katie Lange, “What Is the National Defense Strategy?,” U.S. Department of Defense, 8 October 2018, accessed 5 May 2022, https://www.defense.gov/News/Feature-Stories/Story/Article/1656414/what-is-the-national-defense-strategy/.
- “China-The World Factbook,” Central Intelligence Agency, 11 October 2021, accessed 5 May 2022, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/china/; “U.S. and World Population Clock,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed 14 January 2022, https://www.census.gov/popclock/.
- Center for Preventative Action, “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea,” Council on Foreign Relations, 4 May 2022, accessed 17 June 2022, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/territorial-disputes-south-china-sea.
- “The Chinese Communist Party: Threatening Global Peace and Prosperity,” U.S. Department of State, accessed 30 January 2022, https://2017-2021.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/FINAL20one-pager20Threatening20Global20Peace20Security-1.pdf.
- “Army Secretary Speaks at Atlantic Council Event,” Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, 1 May 2018, accessed 9 May 2022, https://dod.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/Videos/?videoid=597455.
- Curtis W. Tarr, By the Numbers: The Reform of the Selective Service System 1970-1972 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981), xi, accessed 14 October 2021, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA102256.pdf.
- Ibid., 11.
- “A Look at Norway’s Approach to Gender-Neutral Conscription,” SecurityWomen, 22 October 2021, accessed 17 June 2022, https://www.securitywomen.org/post/a-look-at-norways-approach-to-gender-neutral-conscription#:~:text=Since%20then%2C%20the%20percentage%20of,compulsory%20military%20service%20were%20women.
- “Norway,” Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, accessed 2 November 2021, https://shape.nato.int/norway.
- Neal Conan, “Israeli Defense Force Marks 60 Years,” NPR, 5 May 2008, accessed 5 December 2021, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/90190961.
- “Our Soldiers,” Israel Defense Forces, accessed 4 June 2022, https://www.idf.il/en/minisites/our-soldiers/.
- “About Us,” Israel Defense Forces, accessed 5 December 2021, https://www.idf.il/en/minisites/israel-defense-forces/.
- “Countries and Territories,” Freedom House, accessed 5 January 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/nations-transit/scores.
- “Iran—The World Factbook,” Central Intelligence Agency, accessed 5 January 2022, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/iran/#military-and-security.
- “Russia—The World Factbook,” Central Intelligence Agency, accessed 5 January 2022, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/russia/#military-and-security.
- The U.S. Military’s Force Structure: A Primer, 2021 Update (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, May 2021), 40, accessed 5 May 2022, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2021-05/57088-Force-Structure-Primer.pdf.
- Ibid., 41.
- 2020 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community (Washington, DC: Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, 2020), iii, accessed 30 November 2021, https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2020-demographics-report.pdf.
- Ibid., vi.
- “Census Bureau Releases New Estimates on America’s Families and Living Arrangements,” U.S. Census Bureau, 8 October 2021, accessed 30 November 2021, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/estimates-families-living-arrangements.html.
- Report on the Purpose and Utility of a Registration System for Military Selective Service (Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, 2017), 20, accessed 5 May 2022, https://hasbrouck.org/draft/FOIA/DOD-report-17MAR2017.pdf.
Maj. Kelly M. Dickerson, U.S. Air Force, is a student at the Army Command and General Staff College. She holds a BS from the U.S. Air Force Academy and an MBA from the American Military University. Dickerson is a logistics readiness officer who served at several Air Force installations and at the Defense Logistics Agency–Aviation.
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