Military Draft Unlikely for 'War' On Terrorism

Even as the nation's armed forces mobilize for what the commander in chief vows will be an all-out war against international terrorism, there is little chance the government will take the drastic step of reinstating the military draft.

"We will win the war," President Bush said at the Pentagon on Monday. "An act of war was declared against America, but this will be a different type of war than we're used to."

Tens of thousands of reservists are now reporting for duty in preparation for that as yet undefined war effort, but experts agree it is highly unlikely that ordinary citizens will be called to duty — something that hasn't happened since the Vietnam War.

'Almost No Chance,' Say Experts

"There is almost no chance that they're going to institute the draft," says ABCNEWS Military Analyst Anthony Cordesman. "This is not 1940, it's not Korea and it's not Vietnam."

The United States military has been an all-volunteer force for the last quarter century. And there are many reasons why the government will likely not induct civilians into that force in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

"The problem with the draft is that it normally has short-term stints of military service," says Kurt Campbell, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. "But in a sophisticated military organization … it takes a couple of years just to understand your job."

"What we need are truly well-trained professionals capable of operating very high-technology equipment," agrees Cordesman. "And the fact is that draftees can't provide those capabilities."

Large-Scale Ground Wars Unlikely

Department of Defense officials say the military is preparing to wage a "sustained and broad" campaign against terrorists and those who support them.

But the operations the Pentagon is planning are likely not on the same scale or of the same nature as America's last armed conflict — the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the United States deployed more than a half-million servicemen and women to the region in the successful effort to repel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

"It's very hard to imagine a military operation on the scale of 'Desert Storm,'" says Campbell. "We're not going to have the same kind of staging areas and I don't think we'll have the same potential uses of ground forces."

Campbell and other military experts say the United States will likely rely heavily on air and sea power and special forces units, which rarely operate in groups larger than one hundred.

"Draftees are what you need for a mass army when you are fighting a mass enemy in conventional warfare," says Cordesman.

"The real challenge for us is to avoid situations where we would need to use large numbers of people in a large, on-the-ground effort," Campbell adds.

Michael O'Hanlon, an expert on defense issues with the Brookings Institution, says even if such an effort does become necessary, it is unlikely to have the manpower requirements that would necessitate a draft.

"Even if one imagines a major ground war against Iraq or Afghanistan," he says, "these are the sorts of things that we've been planning to do with our active duty force for a long time."

During Operation Desert Storm, some 265,000 reserve and National Guard members were mobilized. Bush, who has the authority to call up as many as 1 million reservists, last week ordered the mobilization of some 35,000 to perform "homeland defense" and civil service functions.

"The troops who will be called up understand better than most that freedom has a cost and that we're willing to bear that cost," the president said Monday.

O'Hanlon says the only scenario under which regular citizens might be called on to bear some of that cost is if the United States moves to occupy one or more countries over a period of several years.

"If we had a five-year occupation … and needed to help shepherd in new governments before we could withdraw — just as we did in Germany and Japan after World War II," he says, "then conceivably you would get into the kinds of manpower requirements that would advise in favor of a draft."

"But that's a quite remote possibility," he adds. "A few percent probability at most."

Selective Service System On Standby

Since 1980, every able-bodied American male has been required by law to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of his 18th birthday. It is that system which will swing into action in the unlikely event that Congress passes and President Bush signs legislation authorizing a draft.

"They would have to revisit the entire process of how a call-up would work," says Campbell. "Very little thought has been given to how you would re-institute it."

According to current plans, men ages 20 to 25 would be eligible, with 20-year-olds the first to be drafted. A lottery based on birth dates would be used to determine the order in which people are called up.

"You wouldn't want to get to the situation we had in Vietnam where the rich could 'buy' their way out and educate their way out of the draft," says O'Hanlon. "That was a divisive approach that I think we would want to avoid."

During most of the Vietnam War, any college student was eligible for a deferment from the draft. Current Selective Service guidelines, however, would allow a college student to postpone his induction only until the end of the semester.

A system is also in place to draft a "very small percentage" of the nation's doctors and nurses into military service if the need arises. All health-care workers between the ages of 20 and 45 — both men and women — would be obligated to register.

As with a general military service draft, a so-called medical draft would require the approval of Congress and the president.

"The Selective Service System remains in a standby, caretaker status," the agency said in a statement today. "At this time, there has been no indication from the Congress or the administration that a return to the draft will be necessary."