Future Tense

Is the Military Really Going to Start Drafting 40-Year-Old Hackers?

Probably not—but 60-year-olds might be a different story.

Middle-aged hacker.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The United States has been engaged in war in Afghanistan since October 2001, when it launched Operation Enduring Freedom, and in Iraq since 2003. But more quietly, the U.S. has also been fighting, and generally losing, a cyberwar with both China and Russia since the early 2010s.

During this time, the U.S. has relied on a volunteer military, despite significant stress on American military personnel from frequent redeployment in the Middle East and an increasingly challenging cyberconflict and artificial intelligence battle space. It is not surprising, therefore, that formal military forces have been augmented by significant contributions from private contractors. Sporadic calls for bringing back conscription—the draft—to relieve the stress on the military and avoid too much privatization have generally fallen on deaf ears. (The selective service system, the administrative backbone of the draft, remains active, although the draft itself was terminated as the Vietnam War wound down, in 1973.)

Given this political dynamic, it is somewhat surprising to find that the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2017 created a National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. The commission website says it “will listen to the public, learn from those who serve, and recommend to the President, Congress, and the American people ideas to foster a greater ethos of military, national, and public service to strengthen American democracy.” And so the commission has started requesting comments on topics including whether a military draft infrastructure is still necessary for national security as well as possible mechanisms for encouraging participation in military, national, and public service by individuals with critical skills. You still have time to submit your thoughts and can do so by email. The comment period ends April 19.

There are several arguments against the draft. The civilian politicians who start wars don’t like the enhanced public attention to conflict that it creates. The companies that profit from the privatization of American war fighting oppose it because it might reduce demand for their products and services. The military is dubious, because a volunteer force is far easier to manage than a conscript force. (I served as an Army officer in the Vietnam War era, so I am very aware that this is a valid and nontrivial concern.) And many young people don’t like it because it interferes with the beginning of their careers, and especially in a period with active wars, it’s scary and dangerous.

There are, however, compelling reasons to reinstitute a universal service requirement, one in which any draftee has at least the possibility of going into the military as opposed to alternative service. The most obvious is history: As Machiavelli and many others pointed out, republican and democratic forms of government, from Republican Rome to Italian city-states, decline rapidly as citizen soldiers are replaced by all-volunteer and mercenary forces. Once military forces are drawn from smaller and smaller subgroups within a society, gaps in knowledge and culture between the military and the larger society form, and widen. Indeed, when he was secretary of defense, Robert Gates expressed precisely this concern regarding the cultural and knowledge gap between the U.S. military and increasingly estranged civilians with no military experience. No society will exist for long when the majority of its citizens decide it isn’t worth protecting.

Similarly, the fragmentation of American society into identity-based subgroups is accelerating, creating political and social pressures that only reinforce disintegration of national cohesion. There are very few institutional changes that might moderate this trend, but appropriately planned and implemented universal conscription is one.

The changing nature of warfare and conflict is another compelling reason. Put simply, war isn’t what it used to be: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and attacks on the European Union and the U.S. election, and China’s success at cyberespionage directed against American financial and technological assets, are only the most obvious examples. Weaponized narrative—the use of disinformation, fake news, social media, and other information and communication technologies to create stories intended to subvert and undermine an adversary’s institutions, identity, civilization, and will by creating and exacerbating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms—is a serious military challenge, but requires a different kind of war fighter than traditional military conflict.

This dramatic expansion of the battle space significantly increases the types of skills that the military requires to carry out its missions. Physical ability to fight must be augmented by skills in software development, artificial intelligence, cyberconflict, political and cultural systems, and much else. It is impossible for a volunteer traditional military force to meet such varied requirements, especially when pay scales between military and civilian positions in some skill sets, such as cybersecurity, are so divergent. This is reflected in the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service’s request for comments, which specifically asks, “How can the United States increase participation in military, national, and public service by individuals with skills critical to address the national security and other public service needs of the nation?” This has led to some highly excited commentary, such as the title of a piece published on website the Next Web: “The U.S. Military Could Begin Drafting 40-Year-Old Hackers.”

That doesn’t exactly seem likely to happen in the way you might expect. For one thing, unless it is a matter of absolute national survival—as in France in 1798, when France was being invaded by conservative European powers intent on stifling the revolution—no one drafts productive, middle-aged people. It is far too disruptive to the economy, and to established families, and is thus politically impossible. That’s why it is generally young men who are drafted; it minimizes disruption of society. Moreover, drafting anyone who’s not young into the traditional military is likely to backfire: How many 40-year-old code monkeys are going to make it through basic training?

So no, we won’t be drafting 40ish software engineers to the traditional military anytime soon. But a properly structured draft could be an important component of re-engineering national security in the coming decades. Any such conscription program would have to be carefully designed and would require some substantial changes in military structure and training. But a universal service requirement could help both the military and the country find the skills they need.

For example, it might be time to recognize just how much technology is changing conflict and create an entirely new nontraditional military entity—say, the Homeland Defense Corps—that would have the mission of infrastructure attack and defense and would partially be staffed by conscription. In addition to cybersecurity experts, it icould include specialists in finance, infrastructure (energy, electrical grid, air transportation, and so forth), and even soft power. Such a Homeland Defense Corps would have been called in to help when Atlanta’s city government was recently hit with a damaging ransomware attack, for instance, but also when Russia or any other adversary tries to suborn American democratic processes. Indeed, even absent a draft, establishing such a quasi-military organization, with both offensive and defensive capabilities, may be essential.

And, at least for this branch of the armed services, one might consider drafting, and encouraging enlistment by, seniors over 60, who are usually toward the end of their careers and have already raised their families, as opposed to those in their 40s. After all, the requirement here isn’t to run 20 miles with a full pack but to figure out how to attack an enemy’s cultural narrative while protecting one’s own, or defending against theft of virtually all the country’s intellectual property. Seniors with significant life experience are quite likely to be as good or better at that than their younger compatriots. And certainly there are many older tech workers with deep knowledge who are struggling to find jobs in youth-obsessed Silicon Valley.

As recent thefts of sensitive and classified information (think Edward Snowden, Harold Martin, or Chelsea Manning) illustrate, there would no doubt be security concerns given the mission of the Homeland Defense Corps, but those aren’t unsolvable. Moreover, security issues are inescapable in the new conflict spaces. Both China and Russia have figured out how to manage these specialized and critical functions: China by identifying promising cyberwarriors at the high school level and grooming them for eventual People’s Liberation Army service, and Russia by outsourcing much of their cyberattack capability to quasi-governmental “privateers” such as Fancy Bear and the earlier cybercriminal Russian Business Network. The U.S., by contrast, defaults to giving responsibility for the entire mission of national cybersecurity to the traditional military, which is neither trained nor staffed for it (as opposed to maintaining cybersecurity in its own systems, where it is both comfortable with the mission and reasonably competent in its execution).

Eliminating the draft in 1973 helped calm down a nation torn by the politics of the Vietnam War. But it came with a very high cost, one that continues to accrue on a daily basis as the country fragments into self-righteous emotional echo chambers, as American civil society becomes less and less engaged with the military force that acts around the world in its name, and as competency in critical skills in new technology and civilizationwide conflict fails. A properly designed universal conscription scheme is one of the few tools we have to try to mitigate the damage and ensure effective national defense in a new strategic and technological era. It’s time to get moving.

Brad Allenby is president’s professor of sustainable engineering and Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics, at Arizona State University.