What You Need to Know About the U.S. Military Draft

Military draft
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The Armed Forces of the United States maintain their readiness through voluntary enlistment, but the law requires young men to register through the Selective Service System. This allows a draft to be activated if needed, as was used during the Vietnam War. That was the last time the draft was used in the 20th century

Who Has to Register?

Almost all male U.S. citizens, and male aliens living in the U.S., who are 18 through 25, are required to register with the Selective Service as imposed by the Military Selective Service Act

Even non-citizens must register if they are not in the U.S. on a valid student or visitor visa or part of a diplomatic or trade mission. Selective Service does not collect or share information on immigration status. Undocumented as well as legal permanent residents must register if they came to the country before their 26th birthday. Dual nationals must register.

If you are hospitalized or incarcerated, you don't have to register until you are discharged, if you are still below the age of 26.

If you are disabled, you must still register if you can leave your home and move about independently.

Transgender rules: If you were born female and had a gender change, you don't have to register. If you were born male and had a gender change, you must register.

What Is the Draft?

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 which created the country's first peacetime draft and formally established the Selective Service System as an independent Federal agency.

From 1948 until 1973, during both peacetime and periods of conflict, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces which could not be filled through voluntary means. The draft ended in 1973, and the U.S. converted to an all-volunteer military.

Draft Lottery System

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed a unique random calendar and number selection program for Selective Service. Using this random selection method for birthdays, each day of the year is selected by computer in a random manner, and that date is placed in a capsule and loaded in a large drum on a random basis.

By the same method, numbers from 1 to 365 (366 for men born in a leap year) are also selected in a random fashion, placed in capsules, and the capsules are placed into a second drum.

One capsule is drawn from the drum containing birth dates January 1 through December 31. One capsule is then drawn from the drum containing the sequence numbers from 1 through 365 (366 if the draft will call men born during a leap year) and the date and number are paired to establish the sequence number for each birth date. This is done in full view of all observers, officials, and the media.

Registrants with low lottery numbers are ordered to report for a physical, mental, and moral evaluation at a Military Entrance Processing Station to determine whether they are fit for military service. Once he is notified of the results of the evaluation, a registrant will be given 10 days to file a claim for exemption, postponement, or deferment.

The MEPs would then apply a classification to the inductee. Each inductee is classified based on his beliefs and circumstances, determining who is deferred or exempted.

Draft Classifications

Classifications are only applied once the draft is activated by the Congress and the president. At that time, inductees are assessed and can apply for exemptions, deferments, and postponements from military service. A man may appeal his classification to a Selective Service Appeal Board. Here is a list of some, though not all, current classifications and what they mean:

  • 1-A: Available immediately for military service.
  • 1-O: Conscientious Objector 
  • 4-F: Not Qualified for Military Service due to medical reasons.

For all the codes available to students, religious followers, or other reasons see official Selective Service Page. 

Future Drafts Highly Unlikely

Under all but a very few circumstances, reinstating the draft would have a negative impact on today's military if any immediate impact at all. The draft is not a quick fix.  

The military has been an all-volunteer service of highly-trained professionals who have committed to serving. During that time, the military has dramatically (and successfully) changed the way it trains and the way it fights. It would take 18 to 24 months to recruit and train draftees and form them into new combat units. 

With the military composed of volunteers, the services have been able to impose strict qualifications for duty. If the U.S. were to reinstate the draft and the military was forced to accept everyone regardless of criminal records, test scores, or medical qualifications, the armed forces would be larger, but less effective. 

And the cost would likely be prohibitive; the U.S. military probably cannot afford to bring even a small percentage of our 18 to 25-year-old population into active duty. Mandatory service would add millions of men to the rolls of what is already the highest military budget in the world. They would have to be trained, fed, clothed, equipped and housed. They would at times require medical attention. Additional barracks would have to be built, plus married soldiers would receive housing allowances.