Defense officials, lawmakers and analysts say the military is more effective and less expensive as an all-volunteer force than it would be under a draft.
"My read at this time is that there is not a lot of enthusiasm or support for it, either within the civilian community or perhaps most importantly within the military services themselves," said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee.
The proposal to reinstate the draft was made last week by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a Korean War veteran and a strong opponent of a war with Iraq. Rangel said he was concerned that "the burden of military service was being borne disproportionately by members of disadvantaged groups."
"If our great country becomes involved in an all-out war, the sacrifice must be shared," he said.
Minorities make up 34.4 percent of the military, although they make up only a quarter of the United States population. Twenty percent of people in the armed forces are black, compared to 12 percent nationwide.
Minorities are also far less likely to be officers. Only 17 percent of officers are nonwhite, while 37.5 percent of enlisted personnel are minorities.
Rangel was backed by Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., who has also opposed a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. He said administration officials and lawmakers would be less likely to go to war "if their own family members and neighbors faced the prospects of serving in the military on the front line."
The military personnel subcommittee's top Democrat, Rep. Vic Snyder of Arkansas, said Rangel and Conyers' concerns are valid "but I think there are other ways to deal with it" than a draft.
He said today's military needs well-trained soldiers capable of handling complicated weapons systems.
"I'm not sure that having a draft system of bringing in people who otherwise would not have gone into the military for a two-year period of time would give us the kind of expertise and professionalism that the military today thrives on," he said.
McHugh said volunteer soldiers "tend to be more family-oriented, more career-oriented and stay longer. And that obviously reduces the cost of training."
The Pentagon opposes a return to the draft. The all-volunteer force has provided a military "that is experienced, smart, disciplined and representative of America," the Defense Department said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last month on CNN's Larry King Live, "We've got people serving because they want to serve, because they care about the country."
The last draft ended in 1973 as U.S. troops were leaving Vietnam. Draft registration was suspended in April 1975, but resumed by President Carter in 1980 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As of October, 11.1 million men between the ages of 18-25 were registered, according to the Selective Service System.
Since the end of the civilian draft, men aged 18 to 25 have been required to register with the Selective Service System, which would be activated during a national emergency.
In a draft — which can only occur with Congressional approval — 20-year-olds would be the first called, then those who are 21, 22, 23, 24, and 25. Eighteen and 19-year-olds would "probably not be drafted," the agency says.
During the Vietnam War, the draft was criticized for being unfair, as wealthy whites avoided combat service by getting college deferments.
The military now has about 1.4 million active duty service personnel and 1.3 million reservists, a smaller force than during the Cold War. Concerns have been raised that the force could be stretched thin with the prospect of war against Iraq, the fight against terrorism and growing tensions with North Korea.
But Marcus Corbin, an analyst with the private Center for Defense Information, said technological improvements mean that a large force isn't as necessary as it once was. "The theory of military transformation is that you can do more with less," he said.
For example, the use of precision-guided bombs means fewer planes are required for missions. That means not as many pilots, mechanics or other support staff are needed.
Rangel said his proposal would include not only a military draft, but other forms of mandatory national service. That makes it more appealing to Lawrence J. Korb, who was assistant secretary of defense in charge of readiness under President Reagan.
Korb opposes a military draft, but said he believes national service is "terrific." Yet he said mandatory national service would be expensive, would anger unions that fear losing jobs and could set off debates about who, if anyone, should be exempted.
"National service is an idea that sounds great in theory, but we've never been able to figure out how to do it," he said.