The Registration Placebo

America's real defense needs will not be met by draft registration.


Faced with the prospect of Soviet control of the Persian Gulf, and therefore of the West's supply of oil, President Carter promised in his State of the Union address to use force if necessary to defend the region. And to help do so, he proposed renewal of draft registration.

In reality, however, the defense of the Middle East neither necessitates nor benefits from renewed registration. Even Carter administration officials admit that registration would reduce by only a couple of weeks—the Defense Department says eight days—the more than six months needed for mobilization. Rather, the president intended his call for registration to send a "signal" to the world that the United States is indeed prepared to fight.

But registration sends an entirely different signal to the American public: that registration will solve our defense problems. It could thus actually divert national attention from our real security needs; as Sen. Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.) notes, "Registration is a placebo that will only make us think we're doing something real."

These security needs include ensuring that both our active and our reserve military forces are at full strength and combat-ready now, not six months after an attack—a readiness that can be achieved by fully supporting the volunteer armed services; deploying any necessary deterrent weapons, such as the neutron warhead; and ending counterproductive regulations, controls, and taxes, to allow the United States to dramatically increase its oil production, thereby reducing our vulnerability to Soviet control of the Middle East oil flow.

To some, however, those security needs also include peacetime draft registration and, eventually, a peacetime draft. Former HEW Secretary Joseph Califano summarized the prodraft case when he argued recently that "all-volunteer force is an expensive, inequitable, and dangerous vestige of the Vietnam War." Califano is wrong on all counts.

The contention that the all-volunteer force (AVF) is more expensive than a draft ignores three important factors. First, many of the pay and benefit increases accorded AVF members would have been given even if the draft had been continued. According to Richard Cooper of the Rand Corporation, the additional "several billion dollars a year" required on paper by the AVF amounts to an actual annual difference of only about $300 million, or less than one-fifth of one percent of the defense budget.

Moreover, volunteers are more likely to reenlist than draftees are; the retention rate of the armed forces has actually risen since the creation of the AVF in 1973. Not only are training costs thereby reduced, but the servicemen, being experienced, have a greater fighting effectiveness.

Finally, a draft arbitrarily extracts people from productive occupations and places them in, economically speaking, nonproductive enterprises. Thus, the nation loses production of goods and services, and the government loses taxpayers. This economic loss, which could be many thousands of dollars per draftee, would more than offset any higher pay necessary for volunteer servicemen and women.

Nor is the AVF inequitable. Under the AVF, those who choose to defend the country do so; in contrast, a draft entails two or more years of involuntary servitude to the State, a practice inimical to American principles of freedom. In any case, Cooper has concluded that middle-and-high-income individuals "are serving in almost the identical proportions under the volunteer force as they did in the draft." And military manpower expert Martin Anderson has noted that the proportion of blacks in the AVF is only slightly higher than it is in the general population.

The final objection, that the AVF is "dangerous," is equally baseless. Contrary to popular contention, the quality of servicemen in the AVF is actually higher than that under the draft. Anderson notes that from 1973 to 1976, when compared to the draft army, the proportion of service members under the AVF in the top three mental categories rose by 14 percent, while the proportion in the lowest mental category fell by 16 percent.

Nor have the active services been seriously short of recruits, contrary to all the panic cries the public has been hearing. Since 1973, the military services have remained within 1.5 percent of congressional targets. And the shortfalls that have occurred have been predominantly in the lowest mental categories.

Of more concern are the shortfalls in the reserves, running at 15 percent this year, the shortage of reenlisted noncommissioned officers, and potential gaps in recruiting for the active forces. But even Defense Secretary Harold Brown admits that a draft would provide little help here.


In fact, Congress and the administration must bear much of the blame for allowing these shortfalls to develop. According to Senator Bellmon, "We have crippled the volunteer army with pay gaps and gimmicks." The base pay for recruits has now fallen to 17 percent below the federal minimum wage, while the average salary, including allowances, for all enlisted personnel—$9,900—is so low that more than 100,000 military families are eligible for food stamps.

Sen. William Armstrong (R-Colo.) points out that surveys have repeatedly found the erosion of pay and benefits to be "the principal reason why so many noncommissioned officers formerly on career tracks are leaving the service." Similarly, few potential recruits, regardless of their patriotism, can afford to join the service.

This is a disgrace. The men and women who voluntarily risk their lives for our country should be at least as well paid as the average American worker. Such pay parity would not only increase the number of enlistments and reenlistments but would also restore a necessary pride in the armed forces.

And restoring pay parity would not be very expensive. Even though total personnel costs of the armed forces are more than 50 percent of total military spending—$58.4 billion in 1979—only about 11 percent of that—$6.3 billion—goes for the pay of first-termers (who would be acquired by a draft). Thus, even a doubling of first-termer benefits would not significantly increase defense spending.

The additional costs necessary to encourage reenlistment of experienced officers—another requirement for upgrading military manpower capability—would of course be somewhat higher. But since a draft applies only to first-termers, these costs would not be unique to the AVF but would have to be borne by a draft army as well.

Even if the AVF were more expensive, however, the additional cost would be justified. Defending the country benefits every citizen; therefore, every citizen should share the burden, not just those between ages 18 and 26.

Restoring pay parity may not seem as strong a signal to the world as would registration. But it is not likely that the Soviets would be fooled by such an empty gesture as registration, anyway. Far better that we adopt real solutions—a beefing up of our reserves, the production of needed weapons, and a reduction of our reliance on Middle East oil—than meaningless ones. Only then can we ensure an adequate and combat-ready armed forces whenever it may be needed.

Kevin Hopkins is a public policy analyst. Doug Bandow is a Los Angeles attorney.