The Selective Service System is an "inexpensive insurance policy" against a national emergency and should be modified to include women, a senior Defense Department official implied Wednesday during a hearing on the future of draft registration in the U.S.
Asked whether requiring women to register for a potential draft would "result in a more lethal military," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs James Stewart avoided answering the question directly, instead pointing out that all military occupations are now open to men and women and the military basically looks "for standards."
"As long as those individuals meet standards, we are open to them," Stewart said.
But when Jeanette James, a member of a federal commission studying the future of the draft and a former professional House Armed Services Committee staff member, pressed Stewart, pointedly asking, "So am I hearing, 'Yes, it would lead to increased lethality in the military?'" Stewart replied without hesitation: "It is, already."
Until now, the Defense Department has stayed silent on the proceedings of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service, which is conducting a three-year review of public service in America, considering whether the U.S. needs the Selective Service System and if women should be required to register.
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The group also is weighing the options for youth volunteerism and national service in America, reviewing all public service alternatives, including the armed forces, AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and federal employment.
As part of its review, the panel has held public hearings with subject-matter experts and those who have a vested interest in the issues, including military and government officials, educators, national security analysts, veterans, peace activists, theologians and more.
On Wednesday, the panel heard from DoD officials and defense experts on the potential need for a mass mobilization of military forces. Members were told that the Selective Service System not only provides a means to support a military draft, it demonstrates the country's commitment to sovereignty and serves as a deterrent to potential adversaries.
Pointing out that China and Russia are investing heavily in military expansion, the officials said the potential for global conflict exists and the Selective Service System would provide a valuable tool for an unimaginable national emergency.
"At $23 million a year, it's an inexpensive insurance policy," Stewart said.
"While the present Selective Service System is hardly the robust deterrent it is meant to be, potential adversaries would take notice if the U.S. declares the prospect of an expansive national mobilization unlikely or too hard," Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, told panel members. "That we cannot predict the event that would demand a draft is no reason to discard it altogether."
Earlier this year, the commission released an interim report explaining its processes and providing insight into its focus, which includes providing incentives for students to enter public and civil service, making recommendations for improving civic education and promoting a culture of service in the U.S.
Its main mission, however, is to examine the Selective Service System, whether it's needed and if all Americans should be required to register.
Pentagon officials on Wednesday defended its existence, saying it provides a "mobilization option to address any threat" but adding that it provides a number of intangibles.
According to Stewart, Selective Service registration serves as a reminder of the importance of military and public service and, since it is overseen by a government agency independent of the Defense Department, it "reinforces the public's perception of the integrity of the draft process."
It also provides the U.S. military information on potential recruits, providing 75,000 to 80,000 recruiting leads a year, Stewart said.
Yet the system is not perfect, they added. Schulman said changes in warfare, how the U.S. conducts war and its needs in a future conflict may not be met by a draft basically geared to providing basic labor and unskilled manpower to the military in the event of an emergency.
"Americans might reasonably ask why it is necessary to reform or replace a conscription system for a government that has not first done its homework or even engaged the American people on what threats and scenarios keep the government up all night," Schulman said.
Several panelists argued that even though the U.S. has not conducted a draft in more than 40 years, the system should be maintained and improved, given China and Russia's pursuit of military superiority.
According to Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security's Technology and National Security Program, China is aggressively pursuing military excellence, to include improving education for its officers, developing technology, building bases overseas and emphasizing defense education among its student population.
China and its citizens, she said, are invested in developing the nation as a superpower -- a unified front that drills down to individual citizens through exercises and mobilization plans.
Like China, she added, the U.S. should encourage its youth to serve, either in the military or through public service, to build a nation invested in its future.
"The full and equal participation of women throughout the military, including the selective service system, should be recognized as an imperative," Kania said. "[And] the ongoing implementation of a ban excluding, even discharging, transgender service members not only is wrong, it wrongly deprives the U.S. military of their talent and dedication to service."
The commission's meetings come as the Trump administration continues to fight a legal challenge from two men who sued the federal government for what they say is a system that discriminates against men.
The Justice Department on Monday appealed a Texas judge's ruling that the country's male-only draft registration system is unconstitutional. Houston-based Judge Gray Miller ruled in February that the U.S. government's requirement that only male citizens register is discriminatory under the Fifth Amendment's equal protection clause.
The commission will meet again Thursday at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., to hear testimony from those opposed to expansion of the Selective Service System. The hearing will be livestreamed on the commission's web page.