The issue of conscription suddenly shot up the US election campaign agenda after Christopher Miller, a former under secretary for defense and part of the Trump team, suggested that a form of national service should be a way for the United States to prepare for “great-power competition”. In other words, what it needed to have a leadership role in a world filled with conflict.

Miller, who Trump would be likely to place in his Pentagon team in the Department of Defense for a potential second term, said that national service, not just restricted to the military, should be seen as a “rite of passage”. He added it provides a “baseline understanding of the pool of potential military service members and their specific aptitudes”.

One option could be that all high school students could sit an aptitude test for military positions, as recommended by Project 25, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s vision for a second Trump term. In the chapter on the department of defense, Miller writes that the tests would “improve military recruiter’s access to secondary schools”. Such tests would only be sat by students that receive federal funding.

So far, Donald Trump has denied suggestions that he is thinking about reintroducing conscription if he is re-elected in November. Conscription or the draft, which is mandatory military service for men between the age of 18 and 25, is legislated under the Selective Service Act. It has not been enforced since 1973 in the US. Trump called the idea of his reinstating the draft “completely untrue”.

Despite Trump’s denial, other Republicans have also come out in support of national service. Senator J. D. Vance, a potential vice president candidate for Trump, has said that he supported a form of national service and said that more Americans should put “some skin in the game”.

innerself subscribe graphic

Former Trump Defense department official, Rob Hood, said that national service should be part of a reciprocal relationship between citizens and government. “Who gave them their social security number? The United States government,” Hood said before adding that: “There can be the takers and there can be the givers, and once we’re all a bunch of takers and there are no givers, this country will collapse”.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill on June 14 that included an element that would automatically enrol young men between the age of 18 and 24 for Selective Service, despite the draft ending in 1975. The provision was part of the National Defense Authorisation Act which sets the defence budget for the next financial year.

There seemed to be little Democrat support for the bill which suggests it will not get through the Democrat-controlled Senate without significant alterations.

Nonetheless, the draft is becoming a talking point, particularly because of discussions of global, and US, preparedness for global conflict and the poor record of recent US military recruitment.

Not just the US

It is not just the United States that is considering revisiting the issue of conscription, however. Several Nato countries, including Latvia, have reintroduced conscription, while Sweden and Estonia have recently extended it to reach more people, as the threat of a possible Russian advance close to their borders increases.

Meanwhile, in other countries related discussions are under way. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said that if the Conservative party won the general election on July 4 (which appears unlikely), that he too would bring back national service for eighteen-year-olds.

In Germany, where conscription was scrapped in 2011, senior politicians are now discussing the idea of reintroducing the draft. Defence minister Boris Pistorius, while visiting the Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC in May 2024, said he was convinced that “Germany needs some kind of military conscription”. However, German chancellor Olaf Scholz has since announced that there would not be a return to the mass conscription.

Scholz identified one of the issues that would make a sudden return to national service and mass conscription difficult to implement in most countries. “There were many more soldiers, there were much more barracks, there was much more infrastructure that was built for this purpose,” he said.

The same could be said in the UK, where military infrastructure would struggle to cope with a massive upturn in new recruits. Analysts from the Royal United Services Institute, the UK’s leading defence thinktank, illustrated how the recent training of 70 Ukrainian engineers led to severe disruptions to the training of UK personnel.

Conscription would seem to be a solution to the major recruitment issues that western militaries are facing at the moment. The United States has tried numerous initiatives including offering substantial bonuses to entice recruits, but to no avail. The army, navy and air force all failed to reach their target recruitment numbers in 2023.

A report in January highlighted that the UK is also facing both a recruitment and a retention issue in its armed forces. Over 5,000 military personnel left the armed forces in the first nine months of 2023, while the army and navy have missed every recruitment target since 2010.

The major concern for defence planners in the US and Europe lies in the changing geopolitical landscape, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Strategic military planning had previously focused on counterinsurgency and small-scale multinational operations, and many politicians have seen the development of military cyberspace operations as a cheaper alternative, rather than an addition, to traditional military assets such as planes, jets and ships.

This has led to a reduction in arms production which has limited the west’s response to support Ukraine and led to a reduction in nation’s stockpiles of munitions.

Military leaders have called for politicians to prioritise a return to a war footing in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.

If the developing situation does return the globe to a geopolitical environment similar to the cold war, then national service might well be one of the possible solutions that governments have to consider to address a shortfall in military manpower, and that will always be a hot political issue.The Conversation

Dafydd Townley, Teaching Fellow in International Security, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.