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

United States Selective Service System

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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. The draft was not used for the Gulf War or the War on Terrorism. The information below is available in more detail at Selective Service System.

Who Must Register With the Selective Service System?

The obligation of a man to register is imposed by the Military Selective Service Act. 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.

  • 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 for 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.
  • Women and people born female are not required to register, but that can be changed if Congress changes the law. 
  • There is no exemption for only sons, last son to carry the family name or sole surviving sons. You still must register, and you can be drafted. You may be able to get a peacetime deferment if there is a military death in the immediate family.

    6 Penalties if You Don't Register With the Selective Service

    Registration is required by law, and there are legal consequences for failing to register. In most cases, these apply to men born after December 31, 1959.

    Fines and Prison: The maximum penalty for failing to register with Selective Service is a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Failure to register will cause ineligibility for some federal and state benefits including:

    1. Ineligible for Federal Jobs: You'll have to show that you registered with Selective Service to be hired for most federal jobs and the Postal Service.
    2. Ineligible for Student Financial Aid: Men who are not registered with Selective Service cannot obtain federal student loans or grants.
    3. Ineligible for Citizenship: If you want citizenship, and you arrived in the U.S. before your 26th birthday, you must register with the Selective Service.
    4. Ineligible for Federal Job Training Programs: You won't be able to get job training through Workforce Investment Act programs.
    5. State Jobs, Loans, and Training: Most states have added additional penalties for those who fail to register with Selective Service
    6. State Driver's Licenses: Many states have driver's license laws supporting Selective Service registration.

      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. Even before this, our country has a long history of drafting citizens to serve in the armed forces.

      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.

      The registration requirement was suspended in April 1975. It was resumed again in 1980 by President Carter in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Registration continues today as a hedge against underestimating the number of servicemen needed in a future crisis.

      The obligation of a man to register is imposed by the Military Selective Service Act. The Act establishes and governs the operations of the Selective Service System.

      Changes to the Draft From the Vietnam Era

      If a draft were held today, it would be dramatically different from the one held during the Vietnam War. It was changed to make it more fair and equitable, with fewer deferments allowed. The student deferment was thought to favor more affluent students and send more disadvantaged men into military service. Now, a college student could have his induction postponed only until the end of the current semester. A senior could have it postponed until the end of the academic year.

      Before the lottery was implemented in the latter part of the Vietnam conflict, Local Boards called men classified 1-A, 18 1/2 through 25 years old, oldest first. If you were in that age group, you were at risk of being called up for several years. To eliminate this uncertainty, the lottery system now would call up men turning 20 first, with a lower risk of those for each year after that.

      What Happens During a Draft?

      An initiation of a draft would require action by both Congress and the President. Congress would have to pass legislation initiating a draft, and the legislation would have to be passed into law by the signature of the President.

      The selective service would be activated, and they would initiate a draft lottery, which is based on the birth dates of registrants. This lottery establishes the priority in which they are called to service. The first men drafted would be those turning age 20 during the calendar year of the lottery. Those turning 21 in the year of the draft would be the second priority, those turning 22 would be the third priority, and so forth until the year in which they turn 26 at which time they are over the age of liability. Younger men would not be called in that year until men in the 20-25 age group are called.

      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. Official observers certify that the capsule-filling and drum-loading were conducted according to established procedures. This certification is secured to each drum; they are sealed and placed in secure storage.

      Here is how the lottery would work: 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.

      For example, if the date of August 4 is drawn first from the "date" drum, and the sequence number of 32 is drawn from the "numbers" drum at the same time, then those men turning 20 on August 4 would be ordered for induction processing only after men whose birthdays drew sequence numbers 1 through 31. The drawings continue until all 365 (or 366) birthdays of the year are paired with a sequence number.

      After the lottery is completed and results certified, the sequence of call is transmitted to the Selective Service System's Data Management Center. Almost immediately the first induction notices are prepared and sent via mailgram to men whose birth dates drew the lowest lottery numbers.

      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 their 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 Objectorconscientiously opposed to both types (combatant and non-combatant) of military training and service—fulfills his service obligation as a civilian alternative service worker.  A registrant making a claim for Conscientious Objection is required to appear before his local board to explain his beliefs. Their decision may be appealed.
      • 1-A-O: Conscientious Objector— conscientiously opposed to training and military service requiring the use of arms—fulfills his service obligation in a noncombatant position within the military.
      • 2-D: Ministerial Students—deferred from military service.
      • 3-A: Hardship Deferment—deferred from military service because service would cause hardship upon his family.
      • 4-C: Alien or Dual National—sometimes exempt from military service.
      • 4-D: Ministers of Religion—exempted from military service.
      • 4-F: Not Qualified for Military Service due to medical reasons.

      Historical Draft Codes

      Here is a list of codes that were used previously (Vietnam era and before):

      • I-A: Registrant available for military service.
      • I-A-O: Conscientious objector registrant available for noncombatant military service only.
      • I-C: Member of the Armed Forces of the US, the Environmental Science Services Administration, or the Public Health Service.
      • I-D: Qualified member of reserve component, or student taking military training, including ROTC and accepted aviation cadet applicant.
      • I-S: Student deferred by law until graduation from high school or attainment of the age of 20, or until the end of his academic year at a college or university.
      • I-W: Conscientious objector performing civilian work contributing to the maintenance of national health, safety, or interest, or who has completed such work.
      • I-Y: Registrant qualified for military service only in time of war or national emergency.
      • II-A: Occupational deferment (other than agricultural and student).
      • II-C: Agricultural deferment.
      • II-S: Student deferment.
      • III-A: Extreme hardship deferment, or registrant with a child.
      • IV-A: Registrant with sufficient prior active service or who is a sole surviving son.
      • IV-B: Official deferred by law.
      • IV-C: Alien not currently liable for military service.
      • IV-D: Minister of religion or divinity student.
      • IV-F: Registrant not qualified for any military service.
      • Class V-A: Registrant over the age of liability for military service.

      What Is Stop Loss?

      When Stop Loss is in effect, members of the military are not allowed to separate or retire. Some people point to it as a backdoor draft and a sign that a real draft is just around the corner. But the program has been in place for years, and it only affects soldiers who have received official notification of an upcoming deployment. Even then, the soldier may separate or retire after the deployment is complete. The program has nothing to do with the draft. 

      How Recruiting Shortages Are Addressed Without a Draft

      In 2005, the Army had a tough four-month period where they missed their monthly recruiting goals, and then their annual recruiting goal by about 8,000 troops. This was because Congress had authorized the active-duty Army to increase by 20,000 troops, and the Army tried to do this all in one year.

      Instead of a draft, the Army addressed the issue by adding more recruiters, implementing new recruiting incentives, including increasing enlistment bonuses and raising the maximum enlistment age. The Army also accepted more prior service applicants, set higher college loan repayment limits and increased the Army College Fund contributions. The active duty services were able to meet their recruiting goals. 

      In the late 90s, all of the military services, except for the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, missed their recruiting goals for four straight years in a row. It didn't result in a military draft.

      Why a Draft Would Be a Bad Idea

      There are several ways reinstating the draft would have a negative impact.

      • Training Considerations: For more than a quarter of a century, the United States Military has been an all-volunteer service of highly-trained professionals who have committed themselves to overcoming the challenges of military life. During that time, the military has dramatically (and successfully!) changed the way it trains and the way it fights. To implement a draft, we would have to change the entire way the military trains and operates today.
      • Time Lag: According to the Selective Service, if a draft were implemented today, it would take 193 days for the first inductee to report in. After that, it would take another 12 to 18 months to train them and form them into new combat units. In short, if we instituted a draft today, inductees would not be combat effective until about two years from now. That is about the same time that the first recruits' two-year service commitment would be over.
      • Standards Would Drop: With the military composed of volunteers, the services have been able to impose strict qualifications for duty. If we 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. The military services rely on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) testing program to determine whether someone has the aptitude to learn military jobs. If a draft were reinstituted, it would be too easy for individuals who did not wish to serve to intentionally score low on this exam. 
      • High Costs: We 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.