Amid a revived national discussion about a possible return to mandatory military service, a new think tank report illustrates how doing so in today’s America would require the Defense Department to navigate unprecedented social and cultural challenges.

While military conscription — colloquially known as the draft — effectively ended in 1973, all U.S. males aged 18 to 25 are required to register with the U.S. Selective Service in case the draft ever needs to be revived. The House passage of its version of the annual defense policy bill this month included a provision that would make Selective Service enrollment automatic. That, combined with comments by Chris Miller, the former acting defense secretary, about his interest in implementing mandatory service have again spurred curiosity and concern over the possibility of a future draft.

Against that backdrop, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a report this week about what it would take to do just that. The 35-page document, titled “Back to the Drafting Board,” contains 11 recommendations pulled from a tabletop exercise run by the think tank to simulate the mobilization of conscripts in a military crisis. While the U.S. military has run its own mobilization exercises in the wake of the draft — the memorably named exercise Nifty Nugget was run in 1978, followed by Proud Spirit and Proud Saber in 1980 and 1982 — no full test of U.S. mobilization capacity has been executed in the last 50 years, the report states. And the four teams tasked by CNAS with meeting the U.S. Selective Service System planning criteria of being able to produce 100,000 new military inductees within 193 days, found they couldn’t meet those benchmarks. In fact, no team even came close.

The new report emphasizes that a military draft should still be considered a measure of last resort, not a tool for meeting peacetime military needs or a way to encourage national service or close the civil-military divide, which refers to the gap in understanding between the civilian population and the all-volunteer professional military. The tabletop exercise provides such a scenario: it posits that the U.S. is in a hot war with China following either a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or of the U.S. West Coast. These scenarios drive home just how dire national security circumstances would have to be to bring back the draft: one figure highlighted in the report shows casualty rates on the order of hundreds per day at the start of the conflict. While there’s no guarantee that future draft would be instituted under the conditions the exercise CNAS assumed, the think tank sought realism by involving uniformed and civilian Defense Department personnel, legal experts, and Selective Service staff.

One of the four teams, which operated under best-case assumptions about current policy and response to draft notices, had the best outcome: it was able to mobilize 100,000 conscripts in 211 days, and just over 53,000 by the target 193-day mark. Another team, which made realistic assumptions about current conditions, took 402 days to conscript 100,000 troops. The third team, which took on worst-case assumptions for variables, took 1,336 days, or more than three-and-a-half years, to reach 100,000 conscripts. The final team, which assumed that the Selective Service System had been abolished and had to be restarted before conscription could begin, did surprisingly well, taking 223 days to reach the conscription target.

Based on the exercise, it appears that American culture and resistance to the draft in its historical form may present a major obstacle, the report shows. The U.S. public has to believe that the draft is enforceable for mobilization to work, the report’s authors found, and social media messaging could amplify perceptions of inequity or perpetuate disinformation from adversaries.

“The credibility on Day One is really going to matter for proper implementation if we ever have to enact a draft,” Katherine Kuzminski, the report’s primary author, told Military Times. “There’s a lot of ability to sow confusion.”

A viral video of a pop star ripping up a draft notice, or a social media allegation that a local draft board is racist, for example, could quickly turn the tide of public opinion against drafting authorities. She suggested, on the other hand, that enlisting well-known sports figures or celebrities to promote responding to the draft as a civic duty could help the Defense Department and the Selective Service get in front of these obstacles.

Other problems surfaced in the tabletop exercise included the likelihood of legal challenges to the current all-male draft mobilization model, which would likely create “significant delays” in building an emergency force of conscripts. Declining trust in institutions, exercise participants found, would also likely result in historically high rates of deferment, conscientious objector requests, and draft-dodging, raising the possible need for more muscular enforcement mechanisms.

Alongside cultural obstacles are practical ones. The report also found the military services would likely need to relax military entry standards to accommodate a conscripted force of young people who largely don’t meet fitness, education, and mental health standards.

In 1940, Selective Service rejection rates were around 30%, according to the report. Under current models, and assuming only 23% of the draftable population is eligible to serve without a waiver, the military could run out of prospective draftees in just seven rounds, the report found. In addition, the professional all-volunteer force isn’t ready to accept conscripts into the ranks, the report shows. The military, it indicates, would have to plan and prepare to accept draftees in a way that emphasizes their skills and contributions and does not create the perception they’re “cannon fodder,” or simply bodies brought in to inflate the size of the force. Even the Military Entrance Processing Stations, or MEPS, which are now facing delays in recruit in-processing due to health record screening through the new GENESIS platform, would have to get staffed up, potentially with drafted medical professionals, to process a new round of inductees.

The report recommends that the Defense Department create an “executive agent for national mobilization” position to prepare for and address future issues raised in the report. This position was actually required by the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act but remains unfilled, the report notes. It also calls for the National Security Council to return to full-scale mobilization exercises across the government every two years to highlight preparation needs for a future draft.

For the president, the report recommends considering starting a potential future draft round by calling up older conscripts first — those at the upper end of the 18-25 eligible range. Current plans call for mobilizations of those turning 20 at the time of the draft.

“Operational requirements in a future combat environment may mean that individuals with more experience or technical proficiency are needed,” the report states.

While the prospect of a return to the military draft remains politically unpopular, making it an unlikely scenario in all but the most extreme of circumstances, the ability to call up conscripts quickly and build up military strength and technology can send a deterrent message of its own to the enemy, Kuzminski said.

“The ability to signal that we can be in it for the long haul, and that we have the ability to sustain that, can serve as a deterrent value when it comes to what [China’s] decision calculus is,” Kuzminski said. “They don’t want to start a war that could end up being protracted.”

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