IN 1979 and again in 1982 draft registration was used as a symbolic weapon by US presidents desiring to demonstrate toughness to the Soviet Union. It is a ``clear manifestation of United States will,'' said Gen. David Jones, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a decade ago by restarting draft sign-ups; his successor, one-time registration critic Ronald Reagan, retained the program after the military crackdown in Poland. But today the USSR is out of Afghanistan and Solidarity has won the first contested election in Poland in decades. The USSR has also announced a number of unilateral steps to reduce force levels in Europe, making substantial nuclear and conventional arms reductions increasingly likely.
Draft registration never made military sense. At the time President Carter announced he was restarting registration the Selective Service System was preparing a report on how it could begin delivering inductees just 17 days after mobilization without the advanced sign up. Today, with registration, Selective Service says it can produce the first draftee within 13 days, a meaningless savings of four days.
But even if that difference were more - say four weeks instead of four days - it wouldn't matter. At a time of crisis, training camps will be full without any draftees. Richard Danzig, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense, testified before Congress in 1980 that the US has many sources from which to fill its military training capacity.
New recruits and reservists who've just signed up would have to be trained; reservists whose skills had deteriorated would have to go through refresher courses. Members of the Delayed Entry Program - high school kids who signed up in advance but have not yet entered the service - would be called up immediately in an emergency. And there would be volunteers, the tens of thousands of young men who have rushed to enlist at the start of every major conflict. Conscripts would be useful only after the stream of volunteers dried up, which means there is enough time to register people as part of the mobilization process.
Moreover, waiting to register people until a draft is imminent has the important practical advantage of providing a more accurate list. Young men are a highly mobile group, as one in four moves every year. A General Accounting Office (GAO) study found that 85 percent of registrants do not report address changes to Selective Service: ``As a result, address information for between one-fifth and two-fifths of the registrants in the prime induction group - those to be called first in the event of an emergency - could be outdated.'' Selective Service subsequently instituted an address verification program, but no one knows how effective it is. The GAO recommended replacing the current system with a periodic registration.
Given registration's lack of military value, dropping the program would involve no sacrifice. In fact, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon who has introduced legislation to kill the sign up, estimates that doing so would save $10 million, a modest but nevertheless worthwhile sum in what he terms ``an exceptionally tight budget situation.''
Money is not the most important factor, however, as the US struggles to match several different Gorbachev peace initiatives. If President Bush's arms reduction proposal demonstrated a willingness to negotiate, it still lacked the drama of Soviet pledges to unilaterally withdraw tanks, disband divisions, and eliminate short-range nuclear weapons. Dropping draft registration would provide a tangible sign of America's commitment to defusing the European military confrontation.
The elimination of draft registration in the US might also fuel growing debate within the Soviet Union over the continuation of conscription there. Several Soviet independent legislative candidates and military analysts have broached the idea of moving to a volunteer military; the abandonment of the one remaining major symbol of the draft in America might help give the issue more potency in the USSR.
Now that Poland is moving toward democracy and the Red Army has left Afghanistan, justification for draft registration has disappeared. The administration and US Congress should save money and underscore its desire to end the arms race by scuttling the program.