June 18, 2024

Back to the Drafting Board

U.S. Draft Mobilization Capability for Modern Operational Requirements

Executive Summary

For the first time since the Cold War, the United States faces threats from great power competitors. These advanced threats—particularly the pacing threat of the People’s Republic of China—have the potential to escalate at an order of magnitude that would yield the nation’s all-volunteer force (AVF) combat ineffective. The stakes would be high in such a conflict and could require the United States to effectively execute a draft and mobilize, should the president and Congress deem it necessary to do so in the face of an existential threat. Yet the United States has not tested the ability to mobilize a draft since the transition to the AVF more than 50 years ago. While no American president, member of Congress, military leader, or citizen desires the level of conflict requiring a draft, the systems, structures, and processes for implementing a draft must function if needed.

The ability to carry out a draft is of strategic interest for the United States for three reasons. First, a strong capacity to execute a draft will be necessary to fight and win a near-peer conflict should the U.S. strategy of deterrence fail. It provides the United States with the ability to mobilize and sustain forces over a longer period, which will be essential in a protracted conflict. Second, if a draft is necessary in a future conflict, time will be of the essence. Lastly, the United States’ ability to execute a draft can serve as a signal to would-be adversaries that the United States has the systems, structures, and human capital in place to prevail in a protracted conflict. Such a signal could have a deterrent effect against adversaries who are hedging against protracted conflict.

Skeptics of the feasibility of a future draft note that the political capital required to institute a draft is so high that no future president or Congress would be willing to support one. Yet precisely because the political stakes of instituting a draft are so high, U.S. lawmakers, policymakers, and military leaders must assume that if a draft were called, it would be absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, it must work. This report identifies several areas where the United States needs to proactively modernize its draft mobilization capabilities and provides tangible recommendations to ensure the United States can win in a future near-peer conflict.

This report is part of a larger body of literature on the health of the U.S. AVF. It expands the literature on the nation’s ability to generate the human capital needed to deter and, if necessary, execute military requirements to meet the U.S. mission in a future war. It further balances the tradeoffs of having a smaller, high-quality, professionalized AVF with the ability to rapidly increase troops if needed in the event of a near-peer conflict.

To be clear, this report is not advocating for implementation of a draft. Rather, it is a call to ensure that if the United States ever faced an existential threat requiring the president and Congress to pass a draft, the systems, processes, and structures necessary to successfully execute it would be in place.

This report evaluates potential challenges for future draft mobilization and recommends steps the United States should take in peacetime to strengthen its capacity to execute a draft and mobilize, which in turn will strengthen deterrence.

If a draft is required, consider the use of older conscripts within the registered population. The president has the authority to prescribe the guidelines for who is drafted into training and service from within the population of individuals “liable for such training and service and who at the time of selection are registered and classified, but not deferred or exempted.” The current plan for draft mobilization is to begin the draft with individuals who turn 20 in the year a draft is enacted. However, the Selective Service System (SSS) obtains registrations from men ages 18–25. Operational requirements in a future combat environment may mean that individuals with more experience or technical proficiency are needed. In that event, relevant stakeholders may consider older con- scripts with additional skills and education more effective.


“We unanimously believe that the nation’s interests will be better served by an all-volunteer force, supported by an effective stand-by draft, than by a mixed force of volunteers and conscripts.”

—Gates Commission Report, 1970

“The ability to mobilize effectively contributes to the deterrence of war.”

—Department of Defense, Master Mobilization Plan, May 1988

In July 2023, the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force (AVF). The transition to the AVF marked a shift away from using conscripted forces in the U.S. military and established a professional fighting force. The architects of the AVF, led by members of President Richard Nixon’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (referred to as the Gates Commission), critically evaluated the case against the transition to an AVF and found that the incentives for making such a transition were compelling. An AVF would provide a more professionalized force more capable of ensuring the armed forces necessary to meet the military’s requirement and, in turn, protect the nation’s security. As a result of the analysis conducted between March 1969 and February 1970, the United States transitioned to an AVF in July 1973. When the Gates Commission recommended the transition to the AVF, it stipulated an important caveat, stating that “the nation’s interests will be better served by an all-volunteer force, supported by an effective stand-by draft, than by a mixed force of volunteers and conscripts” (emphasis added). Despite that caveat, the nation’s experience during the Vietnam War led the American public to question whether the option of a stand-by draft would be politically feasible for any future conflict. In the more than 50 years since, the nation has not been called upon to test its ability to execute a draft in a conflict scenario.

While no American president, member of Congress, military leader, or citizen desires the level of conflict requiring a draft, the systems, structures, and processes for implementing a draft must function if needed.

The recent Russia-Ukraine War brings to light the critical nature of human capital in modern conflict. Both Russia and Ukraine face challenges in military recruitment and the complications attendant to conscription—on the battlefield and across society. Both sides have experienced high casualty rates and both are exhausting the soldiers who entered the war early on. Changes to law and policy—including adjusting the minimum and maximum ages, revising medical and physical standards, and imposing harsher punishments for draft evasion—are intended to help fill human capital requirements. But as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues into its third year, these efforts to create much-needed manpower to sustain a protracted conflict are falling short. This modern conflict makes evident that—despite the pace of technological advancement—war continues to be a fundamentally human endeavor. Therefore, the United States should continue to employ every tool in its arsenal to deter such conflict and ensure U.S. victory if deterrence fails.

This comprehensive study examines how the United States can most effectively strengthen current law, policy, and practice to support the effective mobilization of a draft. The study outlines the state of current U.S. draft mobilization capacity and identifies the areas for improvement and modernization necessary to produce the human capital requirements to win in near-peer competition should deterrence fail.

To inform the analysis of potential impediments to effective U.S. draft mobilization, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) developed a mixed-methods approach including historical and comparative research; legal and policy reviews; interviews with policymakers, practitioners, and uniformed leaders; surveys of experts regarding their confidence in existing systems and processes; and a tabletop exercise. While this study focused solely on the mobilization of human capital to meet wartime requirements, the research was further informed by the growing body of literature focused on the mobilization capacity of the American defense-industrial base in a near-peer protracted conflict.

The report begins by articulating the intended operational value of draft mobilization. It further outlines the current law, policy, and planning guidance regarding draft mobilization and identifies current challenges and opportunities for modernization. The next section considers current debates regarding a draft within both U.S. historical and international comparative contexts. It draws lessons from the past that may be applicable to the modern U.S. context and provides insights from three past U.S. mobilization exercises conducted since the advent of the AVF—namely Nifty Nugget (1978), Proud Spirit (1980), and Proud Saber (1982). The report then describes insights derived from a draft mobilization tabletop exercise that the CNAS Military, Veterans, and Society team conducted to identify potential challenges that may affect a future draft mobilization. The exercise developed insights for Congress; the Selective Service System (SSS); the Department of Defense (DoD); the military departments; military commanders; the National Security Council; other federal, state, and local agencies; and American society. While the research outlined in sections one and two provides empirical findings regarding U.S. draft mobilization capability, the exercise builds upon the empirical record to explore the challenges that may be presented in a future draft mobilization. The insights inform actionable preemptive legislative, policy, and procedural recommendations to mitigate those challenges before a draft is required. A key insight from the exercise is that time will be of the essence in a future draft mobilization scenario, and there are predictable factors that may cause delays across the mobilization process that can be addressed now. The report concludes with findings, insights, and recommendations for policymakers, legislators, and uniformed leaders across the national security enterprise.

Defining the Draft

The terms “selective service,” “registration,” “draft,” “induction,” “conscription,” and “mobilization” are frequently conflated with one another in common parlance. Yet important distinctions exist among the terms.

The term selective service refers to the process by which a nation can screen citizens into compulsory military service while also ensuring that those individuals meet the selective standards necessary for service. Selective service models contrast with universal conscription models, wherein all (or nearly all) citizens are compelled into military service. The U.S. Selective Service System (SSS) is the government agency responsible for collecting and maintaining the data for all registered men so that when the president and Congress legally enact a draft, the nation can meet the personnel needs of the Department of Defense (DoD) “in a fair and equitable manner.”

In the U.S. context, registration is the process by which men between the ages of 18–25 provide their personal information to the SSS to be included in the dataset available to federal agencies in the event of a national emergency. In the U.S. SSS, the required information collected during the registration process is the individual’s full name, home address, Social Security number, date of birth, and email address.

A draft is the legal authorization passed by Congress and signed by the president to extend DoD’s end strength and ensure the military’s “capability to recruit and retain its total force strength.” When a draft is enacted, the president is authorized to induct additional capability into the military services. A new draft would require an update to the Military Selective Service Act.

Induction is the institutional “act of taking a person into any of the Armed Services of the United States without voluntary action on his or her part.” Conscription refers to the same process but from the perspective of the individual being inducted by the institution (i.e., the SSS inducts individuals into service; the individual is conscripted into service).

Lastly, mobilization refers to the “assembling and organizing of national military resources,” including the active component, the reserve component, and/or conscripts “to support a nation’s defense or strategic objectives.” Since 1973, U.S. mobilization efforts have only included the use of active component forces, the activation of reserve component forces, and, in limited cases, the recall of members in the Individual Ready Reserve.

This report uses the term “the draft” to refer to the legal authorization process whereby Congress and the president call upon the nation’s human capital to meet military requirements to achieve operational victory. Questions surrounding the political feasibility, necessity, utility, legality, and fairness of the draft understand- ably generate an emotional response from the public, lawmakers, and policymakers. The prospect of draft mobilization also generates anxiety among members of the professionalized AVF who would be charged with training and managing conscripts. Precisely because draft mobilization has the potential to elicit a strong reaction, it is important to clarify what the draft is not intended to accomplish while defining its intended use.

The draft cannot ensure that the U.S. military wins the first battle of the war—but should ensure that it can win the last battle of a protracted war.

Current law allows the SSS 193 days to fully execute a draft, from the moment the updated Military Selective Service Act (MSSA) is signed until the delivery of the first inductees to the military. This means that con- scripts will not be readily available to surge military capacity at the onset of a conflict. Moreover, the professional skills and training of the AVF will be critical to succeeding in the first days, weeks, and months of a modern conflict.

The draft is not a tool for meeting peacetime end-strength requirements.

The draft is a legal authorization the president and Congress implement to expand the total force in a national emergency. It is not a tool intended to ensure that the nation can meet steady-state military recruiting requirements. Recent military recruiting crises have led some commentators and analysts to suggest that a draft is one way to meet end-strength requirements.

Yet this recommendation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of statutory force activation options. Total mobilization—another term for draft mobilization—is the most extreme option available to a president and Congress. As discussed in the next section, the president and Congress independently have other options for increasing access to military human capital—including partial and full mobilization of the reserve component—short of total mobilization.

Moreover, draft mobilization has serious implications for the relationship between the government and the American public and should not be easily entertained for any challenge short of an existential threat. Regardless of political affiliation, American values of individualism and personal agency conflict with compulsory service in life-or-death matters. While an existential conflict may require both political leaders and the population to grapple with the necessity of draft mobilization and consider the tradeoffs required for national survival, a draft should only be used as a tool of last resort—not a stopgap effort to meet peace-time requirements.

The draft should not be used primarily to provide a solution to close the civil-military divide or drive democratic accountability.

While an organic and associated benefit of the draft is that it may drive a greater awareness of U.S. use-of- force decisions and distribute the burden of warfare among civilians who otherwise may not engage in issues of national importance, the draft should not be used as a tool to close the civil-military divide. The U.S. military is a professional force with a mission to meet operational requirements. Even if the president and Congress deem it necessary to rapidly expand the force with conscripts, the end goal is to produce a mixed force capable of defeating the nation’s adversaries. If there is a concern that civilians are not adequately invested in personal or societal costs of warfare, either across broader society or within Congress, there are other mechanisms that can close the civil-military divide without detracting from the quality of the force. For example, a historical mechanism used to bridge the civil-military divide is the increase in taxes necessary to fund wars.

The draft is not a tool solely intended to change social policy—it is a matter of meeting human capital requirements for near-peer conflict.

Current debates surrounding the draft—namely, the debate regarding whether SSS registration and the draft should remain all male, or whether SSS registration should be expanded to all Americans of current registration age (18–25)—tend to center on gender equity arguments. This report sets aside arguments of gender equity and examines potential operational impacts of the current all-male draft, alternative systems, and the impact that legal challenges may have on draft mobilization should one be deemed necessary.

The research and exercise highlight issues of law, policy, and practice that could either degrade the deterrent value of the current draft mobilization process or delay its implementation in a scenario where time will be of the essence. For the draft to meet its intended goals as a deterrent and as a tool to meet human capital requirements in a future war, potential adversaries and the American public alike must view it as credible. For adversaries, that includes clear signaling of the U.S. draft mobilization system strengths, a clear commitment to enact a draft if a scenario calls for it, and the capability to implement the draft if enacted by the president and Congress. For the U.S. domestic audience, a draft must include all the elements necessary to dissuade adversaries—and must further be viewed as equitable by those being drafted and by society writ large.

The draft is not a tool that any American wants to use. However, a strong draft mobilization process ensures U.S. national security by signaling to adversaries that the United States can prevail in protracted conflict—thus deterring initial aggression—and by delivering the capability to defeat an adversary should deterrence fail. The purpose of the draft is to ensure that the DoD can fill a wartime total force, which will exceed the limits of the AVF.

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  1. For background, see Michael C. Horowitz and Matthew S. Levendusky, “Drafting Support for War: Conscription and Mass Support for Warfare,” The Journal of Politics 73, no. 2 (April 2011): 524–534, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1017/s0022381611000119; Heidi Urben and Peter Feaver, “The All-Volunteer Force at 50: Civil-Military Solutions in a Time of Partisan Polarization,” Just Security, June 28, 2023, https://www.justsecurity.org/87053/the-all-volunteer-force-at-50-civil-military-solutions-in-a-time-of-partisan-polarization/.
  2. Manner of Selection, Manner of Selection of Men for Training and Service; Quotas, 50 U.S. Code §3805(a).
  3. Martin Binkin, Military Technology and Defense Manpower (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1986).
  4. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, Pub. L. No. 117-81, 135 Stat. 1541 (2021).
  5. Selective Service System briefing, November 2023.
  6. The title of the role was changed to assistant secretary of defense for readiness and force management in 2012.
  7. Bernard Rostker, director of Selective Service, Appellant, v. Robert L. Goldberg et al., 453 U.S. 57 (June 25, 1981).
  8. American Civil Liberties Union, “National Coalition for Men, et al. v. Selective Service System, et al.,” https://www.aclu.org/cases/national-coalition-men-et-al-v-selective-service-system-et-al; Inspired to Serve: The Final Report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, March 2020), https://www.volckeralliance.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Final%20Report%20-%20National%20Commission.pdf.
  9. The Report of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force (Washington, DC: The President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Force, February 1970), 5–6,https://www.nixonfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/The-Report-Of-The-Presidents-Commission-On-An-All-Volunteer-Armed-Force.pdf.
  10. P. Edwards, Master Mobilization Plan (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Force Management and Personnel, May 1988), 1, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA267855.pdf.
  11. The Report of the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force, 5.
  12. Constant Méheut and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “After Two Years of Bloody Fighting, Ukraine Wrestles With Conscription,” The New York Times, January 28, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/28/world/europe/ukraine-conscription-mobilization-bill.html; “Russia Extends Conscription for Compulsory Military Service Up to Age 30,” Reuters, July 25, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russian-lawmakers-vote-raise-conscription-age-limit-30-2023-07-25/
  13. See, for example, Andrew Metrick, Rolling the Iron Dice: The Increasing Chance of Conflict Protraction (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2023), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/rolling-the-iron-dice; Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham, The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 9, 2023), https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/230109_Cancian_FirstBattle_NextWar.pdf?VersionId=WdEUwJYWIySMPIr3ivhFolxC_gZQuSOQ.
  14. Selective Service System Annual Report to the Congress of the United States, Calendar Year 2022 (Washington, DC: Selective Service System, 2022), https://www.sss.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Annual-Report-2022-Digital.pdf.
  15. “Register: Directions,” Selective Service System, accessed February 3, 2024, https://www.sss.gov/register.
  16. “Return to the Draft: Sequence of Events,” Selective Service System, accessed February 3, 2024, https://www.sss.gov/about/return-to-draft/#s1.
  17. "Volume 7A, Definitions," in DoD Financial Management Regulation (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 1999), https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/documents/fmr/archive/07aarch/07a_definitions_Feb99.pdf. The referent objects of “induction” and “conscription”—the government and the individual, respectively—is a technical distinction. However, in practice and for the purposes of this report, “induction” refers specifically to the act of processing and training individuals for service, while “conscription” refers more broadly to the act and system of calling up individuals to service (i.e., conscripts are first inducted into service before they can be effective- ly mobilized).
  18. “Military Mobilization,” RAND Corporation, accessed March 5, 2024, https://www.rand.org/topics/military-mobilization.html.
  19. The Individual Ready Reserve is composed “primarily of [service members] who need to fulfill their Military Service Obligation (MSO) under Section 651 of Title 10 USC.” They are trained service members who can be recalled into active service if authorized by the president. See “Individual Ready Reserve,” U.S. Army Reserve, https://www.usar.army.mil/IRR/.
  20. See, for example, Joe Plenzler, “We Need a Limited Military Draft,” Military.com, July 29, 2023, https://www.military.com/daily-news/opinions/2023/07/29/we-need-limited-military-draft.html; Dennis Laich, “Manning the Military: America’s Problem,” Army Times, July 22, 2019, https://www.armytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2019/07/23/manning-the-military-americas-problem/.
  21. See, for example, Max Boot, “The All-Volunteer Force Turns 50—And Faces Its Worst Crisis Yet,” The Washington Post, February 13, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/02/13/army-draft-volunteer-national-service/.
  22. Sarah E. Kreps, Taxing Wars: The American Way of War Finance and the Decline of Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).


  • Katherine L. Kuzminski

    Deputy Director of Studies, Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Katherine L. Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is the Deputy Director of Studies, and the Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society (MVS) Program at CNAS. Her research special...

  • Taren Sylvester

    Research Assistant, Military, Veterans, & Society Program

    Taren Sylvester is the Research Assistant for the Military, Veterans, & Society Program at CNAS. Their research interests include issues of civil-military relations, socie...

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