‘Special skills draft’ on drawing board

Computer experts, foreign language specialists lead list of military’s needs

by Eric Rosenberg, Hearst Newspapers
March 13, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle

Washington — The government is taking the first steps toward a targeted military draft of Americans with special skills in computers and foreign languages.

The Selective Service System has begun the process of creating the procedures and policies to conduct such a targeted draft in case military officials ask Congress to authorize it and the lawmakers agree to such a request.

Richard Flahavan, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, said planning for a possible draft of linguists and computer experts had begun last fall after Pentagon personnel officials said the military needed more people with skills in those areas.

“Talking to the manpower folks at the Department of Defense and others, what came up was that nobody foresees a need for a large conventional draft such as we had in Vietnam,” Flahavan said. “But they thought that if we have any kind of a draft, it will probably be a special skills draft.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said he would not ask Congress to authorize a draft, and officials at the Selective Service System, the independent federal agency that would organize any conscription, stress that the possibility of a so-called “special skills draft” is likely far off.

A targeted registration and draft is “is strictly in the planning stage,” said Flahavan, adding that “the whole thing is driven by what appears to be the more pressing and relevant need today” — the deficit in language and computer experts.

“We want to gear up and make sure we are capable of providing (those types of draftees) since that’s the more likely need,” the spokesman said, adding that it could take about two years to “to have all the kinks worked out. “

The agency already has in place a special system to register and draft health care personnel ages 20 to 44 in more than 60 specialties if necessary in a crisis. According to Flahavan, the agency will expand this system to be able to rapidly register and draft computer specialists and linguists, should the need ever arise. But he stressed that the agency had received no request from the Pentagon to do so.

The issue of a renewed draft has gained attention because of concerns that U.S. military forces are over-extended. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, U.S. forces have fought two wars, established a major military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and are now taking on peacekeeping duties in Haiti. But Congress, which would have to authorize a draft, has so far shown no interest in renewing the draft.

Legislation to reinstitute the draft, introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has minimal support with only 13 House lawmakers signing on as co- sponsors. A corresponding bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., has no co-sponsors.

The military draft ended in 1973 as the American commitment in Vietnam waned, beginning the era of the all-volunteer force. Mandatory registration for the draft was suspended in 1975 but resumed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. About 13.5 million men, ages 18 to 25, are registered with the Selective Service.

But the military has had particular difficulty attracting and retaining language experts, especially people knowledgeable about Arabic and various Afghan dialects.

To address this need, the Army has a new pilot program underway to recruit Arabic speakers into the service’s Ready Reserves. The service has signed up about 150 people into the training program.

A Pentagon official familiar with personnel issues stressed that the armed forces were against any form of conscription but acknowledged the groundwork already underway at the Selective Service System.

“We understand that Selective Service has been reviewing existing organizational mission statements to confirm their relevance for the future,” the official said. “Some form of ‘special skills’ registration, not draft, has been a part of its review.”

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