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With Congress Divided Over the Draft, Carter Seeks 'Better Force' with Women in All Roles

United Nations investigators inspect a weapon used by gunmen during the attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, on Nov. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Baba Ahmed)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stressed today that adding women to the Selective Service is a congressional matter, but “it stands for reason that since women are now able to serve, if qualified, in every operational specialty in our military, that they would be the subject of discussion.”

The defense authorization bill passed by the Senate last week would require women turning 18 on or after Jan. 1, 2018, to register for the draft. That provision is not in the House version of the bill. It will now be fought over in the conference committee where the two bills are reconciled; that process could run through the summer.

Carter was asked at a Fort Knox media availability today about whether adding women to the draft was a natural step in broadening opportunities for women in the armed forces — and whether he sees that becoming a campaign issue this fall.

“The reason that we opened up all positions in our military to women is a very simple one. It is that we have an all-volunteer force, which means that we pick from the American population,” he said.

“That’s a very important principle to me, because that’s why I get the very best people. I don’t want a cross-section of America; I want the best qualified people. And to have the best-qualified people I need to be able to choose from the widest possible pool of people. Well, half of the American population is female. So I don’t want to set aside half of the population of the pool from which I can choose an all-volunteer force. So that was the reason why we did it in the first place, to have a better force, a better quality in our force.”

Carter stressed again that “we’re not looking for a random cross-section of Americans; we’re looking for the very best — that’s the all-volunteer force we have, and it’s one of the glories of the United States.”

“Now that imposes other responsibilities on us, like making sure we stay up-to-date in how people are thinking about careers, and how younger people are thinking about their lives so we can make military life something they want to do,” he continued, veering into his broader platform of military reforms to make the DoD a more attractive long-term career.

“We can’t change everything, because we have to be what we have to be, right It’s tough. You have to go where we tell you to go when we tell you to go. And there are some parts about the profession of arms we can’t change. But where we can make military life more attractive for more Americans to consider, so we can pick among them, that’s good for our military, because once again, the strength of our military is our people.”

As far as the campaign, “I’m not going to say anything about the presidential campaign now or ever.”

“And nobody in our department is going to be. And I’m just going to insist upon that as a principle,” Carter added. “And the reason for that is that we, in the Department of Defense, and in national security more generally, stand apart from politics.”

The Defense secretary added that he’s proud of “how much I hear from foreign leaders about how much they like working with Americans, because they think our soldiers are great people in addition to being great soldiers.”

“And they think our country stands for good things. And that’s the reason why we have so many friends around the world,” Carter said. “And it is a strength of our country that we have so many friends and allies around the world.”