Colin Clark
May 22, 2008

In an exchange sure to send ripples of anxiety through the all-volunteer military, the Senate’s senior defense spending member asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen if it is time to “consider reinstituting the draft.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, asked Gates and Mullen the question he said no one wants to ask: “Is the cost of maintaining an all-volunteer force becoming unsustainable and, secondly, do we need to consider reinstituting the draft.”

Inouye cited the ever-increasing pay and benefits paid to active and reserve service members, noting that it now costs an estimated $126,000 per service member.

Gates and Mullen both said they thought the current volunteer force was the finest the U.S. has ever fielded. Gates said he “personally” believes that “it is worth the cost.”

Mullen was not quite as sanguine.

“A future that argues for, or results in, continuous escalation of those costs does not bode well for a military of this size,” he said, adding it the rising costs will eventually force the US to shrink the military, spend less on new weapons or to “curtail operations.” The question of pay and benefits for the U.S. military “is the top issue we need to come to terms with,” Mullen said.

This marks the first time a senior member of Congress has seriously discussed reinstituting the draft in almost two years. Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, called for reinstituting the draft in November 2006.

Tuesday’s discussion occurred during debate over the pending $70 billion emergency supplemental spending bill. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that the bill was unlikely to move before Labor Day, requiring a one month extension of war spending.

In related news, Gates was asked by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi during the appropriations hearing what would happen if the 2009 defense spending bill were not passed, requiring what is known as continuing resolution to provide the Defense Department with money.

Gates, clearly prepared for the question, said the department would face enormous losses should Congress rely on a resolution, losing nearly $8.7 billion dollars for increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps, and see $246 million for the new Africa Command vanish along with $1.8 billion for base closure and realignment. A continuing resolution effectively funds a department at the levels it received the year before.

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