Defense Secretary Harold Brown recommended to Congress yesterday that any new legislation to require young people to register for the draft be applied to women as well as men.
"Registration should include registration of women if it takes place," Brown told the House Armed Services Committee in staking out a position that adds a new dimension to the "bring back the draft" movement in Congress.
Several lawmakers, complaining that the all-volunteer Army is failing, have said they will champion bills this year to push the United States toward conscription.
Until yesterday, the focus was on requiring 18-year-old men, but not women, to register with their draft boards as a first step toward conscription, which was suspended in 1973.
Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D- Miss.), a member of the committee who is pushing one of the bills to bring back the draft, said after hearing Brown testify that it might not be a bad idea to include women, although he said this is not what he had in mind originally.
Montgomery said the bill he envisioned would have required 18-year-old men to register and would have drafted between 100,000 and 200,000 of them over the next five years to fill gaps in the nation's military reserve force. The draftee would serve on active duty for six months, remain subject to call in a national emergency as a reservist for six years, and receive educational benefits for his time.
"I don't have any problems with it," Montgomery replied when asked if he would be willing to include women as well as men under his bill.
"In this equal-rights environment," he added, "men are going to challenge in court any legislation that drafts them and not women."
Given the likelihood of the men winning such a court case, Montgomery reasoned, it might make more sense to register women in case they did have to be drafted along with men under some kind of equal-rights ruling.
Now that the Pentagon's top civilian has made registering women as well as men for the draft a matter of equity, the "bring back the draft" movement in Congress may lose steam as the lawmakers take fresh readings of the political consequences of applying any new law to women as well as men.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called the all-volunteer force a "disaster" and has promised to push for a vote this year to bring back draft registration. He contends that part of the military problem today is that the services have taken in women to fill gaps in the ranks and then given them jobs that they cannot handle.
If Montgomery's prediction that passing draft legislation would end up putting even more women in uniform, the problem Nunn sees with the allvolunteer force might be worsened rather then solved.
Secretary Brown during the House hearing said that "I'm not prepared" to take a position on whether women should be drafted if men are.
"I'd have one answer," he said, if there were "a large additional requirement for noncombat people" and another if the need was for "combat fillers."
Although women today perform a wide range of jobs in the armed services, direct combat is not one of them. They do drill and learn how to fly airplanes, but the services so far have declared the battle zone off limits to them.
Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was sitting alongside Brown as they opened their House testimony on the new defense budget and related issues, like the draft. Jones said the joint chiefs favor registering 18-year-old males to save time getting them into uniform if war or other national emergency should occur.
Asked at the close of yesterday's hearing whether he agreed with Brown that women should be required to register if men are, Jones acknowledged that there are social considerations that go beyond the chiefs' primary concern. But he said that drafting women would not be "solving our needs" to reinforce "the combat arms."