“This Agency is focused on readiness – while being fair and equitable in all that it does – as it learns from the lessons of the past so that it is prepared for whatever may come next.”
By Joel C. Spangenberg, Director of Selective Service (acting)
Recent developments such as Russia’s war against Ukraine and the Chinese military’s posture in the Western Pacific illustrate the growing geopolitical challenges and threats the U.S. and its allies face. As described by the 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS), the U.S. is focused on seamlessly integrating its deterrence efforts in coordination with allies and partners, and strengthening the military so that it is equipped for this era of strategic competition.
The Selective Service System (SSS) supports the national defense community, serving a critical role in ensuring the nation’s military personnel needs are met in times of a national emergency. At all times, as a central part of its mission, it stands ready to support the Department of Defense’s efforts to maintain the military end-strength necessary for “backstopping diplomacy, confronting aggression, deterring conflict, projecting strength, and protecting the American people,” as articulated in the NSS and emphasized by the NDS.
Not only does SSS have a longstanding, statutory role to provide personnel during national emergencies when conscription is needed, but it also relies on robust intergovernmental partnerships to always be ready for the unknown.
A Brief History of the Selective Service System
The first national conscription system was established during World War I, creating a system of local boards across America to set and administer guidelines to determine which men should be drafted.
In 1940, over a year prior to the United States’ declaration of war during World War II, the Selective Service Training and Service Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ultimately, more than 10 million draftees were inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.
In 1948, Congress passed the Military Selective Service Act (MSSA), which formally established SSS as an independent Federal agency responsible for delivering qualified men for induction into the U.S. Armed Forces.
Although the military transitioned to an all-volunteer force in 1973, the MSSA and related registration requirements remain in effect today. Specifically, 18 to 25-year-old men are required to register with SSS. This Agency is focused on readiness – while being fair and equitable in all that it does – as it learns from the lessons of the past so that it is prepared for whatever may come next.
Foundations of SSS Intergovernmental Collaboration
SSS is currently in “active standby” status and maintains readiness to return to “full operation” if the President and Congress authorize a return to conscription. In practice, this means that the Agency maintains a modest size and necessary structures in peacetime that could be increased in scale and deliver the full scope of necessary functions during a national emergency.
To stay prepared for full operation, SSS has state directors in all 50 States, New York City, and five U.S. territories who work with State and local government officials. To become state directors, these leaders require a recommendation from their governor, or equivalent, and are appointed by the Director of Selective Service on behalf of the President.
As part of its national framework, SSS has approximately 9,000 volunteer board members who serve on more than 2,000 local boards nationwide. SSS continuously works with States, communities, and a variety of organizations across the country to identify board members to serve the nation. Like state directors, board members require a governor’s recommendation and are appointed by the Director of Selective Service on behalf of the President.
By law, the makeup of local boards should reflect the diversity of their communities, which aligns with SSS’s emphasis on maintaining fairness and equity in all it does. The primary role of local boards is to make determinations on registrants’ reclassification claims during conscription. For example, a local board would evaluate and decide on a man’s claim as a conscientious objector (CO).
A CO whose claim was favorably determined by a local board would then serve two years under the Alternative Service Program (ASP). Alongside several Federal agencies, two States – Alabama and Ohio – currently have agreements with SSS to place COs into civilian alternative service worker roles that contribute to the national interest. In times of a national emergency, States may experience an immediate workforce reduction due to young men being drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces, while National Guard and Reserve personnel are simultaneously being mobilized to support national security interests and defend the homeland. ASP would serve as a pipeline of talent, providing States with personnel to reduce local impacts during a national emergency.
SSS continues to work with States to increase the number of ASP agreements, and recently highlighted this opportunity with the National Governors Association and shared written requests with governors across the nation seeking their support. As a key aspect of its readiness, SSS is eager to expand this program.
Another important aspect of SSS’s readiness efforts is carried out through the Reserve Service Member (RSM) program. SSS has up to 175 RSMs total from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and National Guard supporting its planning, exercise, and board member recruitment and training efforts.
National Guard participation is particularly important since a return to conscription would require the ramp-up of State level SSS infrastructure to include the establishment of State headquarters and area offices in support of the classification of registrants for military or alternative service.
Registration Awareness and State and Local Legislation
One of the most publicly visible things SSS does is educate the American public about the registration requirement through sustained marketing and advertising campaigns. To increase awareness of the registration requirement for men, SSS collaborates with high school guidance counselors, teachers, and coaches, as well as with colleges. Through its data analysis, SSS has found that these and other influencers have a substantial impact. SSS has emphasized the message that registration protects a young man’s future, since registration is an eligibility requirement for important Federal and State benefits such as eligibility for government employment, job training programs, student aid, and U.S. citizenship.
State legislation has proven quite effective in increasing registration rates and protecting men’s eligibility for benefits. A total of 46 States and territories have enacted statutes known as driver’s license legislation that support the registration requirement by linking registration to the driver’s license application process. SSS continues to conduct outreach to the remaining States without such laws and is currently working with Massachusetts and New Jersey legislative leaders who are supportive of passing similar legislation.
Another example of State legislation, which can also be helpful at the local level, is from the District of Columbia. For several years, D.C. had the lowest registration rate for 18–25-year-old men in the nation. In 2022, the D.C. Mayor signed into law the Selective Service Federal Benefits Awareness Amendment Act, which established an SSS registration awareness campaign, led by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, to inform young men living in the nation’s capital about this Federal requirement. This sort of legislation may prove to be a helpful complement to driver’s license legislation in some State and local jurisdictions.
SSS has taken steps to work more closely with Tribal partners. President Biden’s memorandum on Tribal consultations from January 26, 2021, emphasized that, “History demonstrates that we best serve Native American people when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities.” SSS has taken steps to implement this memorandum by increasing and enhancing its engagement with Tribal governments. This has included Tribal leader visits by state directors and outreach to tribes across the country to better inform them about the requirement for young men to register with SSS and volunteer opportunities with SSS, particularly local boards. SSS is also participating in the White House Council on Native American Affairs.
Whether during peacetime or a time of conflict, SSS must do its part to protect America’s national security interests and way of life. SSS does not do this alone and relies on strong teamwork and enduring partnerships. This is especially important in SSS’ collaborative work with many intergovernmental partners who are also making significant contributions to our national defense.
Mr. Joel C. Spangenberg, a member of the Senior Executive Service, is the Director of Selective Service (acting). The Selective Service System is an independent Federal agency that oversees the nation’s military draft capability, administers the registration requirement for over 15 million men, and is responsible for providing an alternative service program for conscientious objectors. Its workforce includes civil servants, military reservists, contractors, and approximately 9,000 volunteers nationwide.