President-elect Donald Trump comes to the office promising some of the biggest military force increases in recent history: a fleet of 350 warships, compared with the current Navy goal of 308, and 36 active Marine Corps infantry battalions as opposed to today’s 24, to name two figures.
But while these goals are in line with the right-leaning Heritage Foundation’s projection of what it would take to address today’s global threats and conflicts, building the force to meet those goals would not be a fast or easy process, defense leaders said Wednesday.
Speaking at the U.S. Naval Institute Defense Forum in Washington, D.C., Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said a Marine Corps of that size would present challenges related to infrastructure, as well as recruiting and quality.
“That’s a lot of people, and you’re talking about a volunteer force that has to be recruited,” Neller said. “I have to find X number of battalion commanders, X number of company commanders, sergeants major, [operations officers], and let alone buy the gear, build the barracks.”
Currently, Neller said, the Marine Corps only had infrastructure enough to support 27 infantry battalions, or perhaps a bit more than that. But a greater concern, he said, is maintaining the level of skill and quality that the service has cultivated in the ranks.
“Whenever you try to grow too fast, it’s very difficult to maintain that level of quality and experience,” he said. “So if that’s what the president directs us to do, that’s what we’ll do as long as we get the funding and support to do it. But it will take some time.”
Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican from Virginia, the co-chair of the House Shipbuilding Caucus and a member of the subcommittee on seapower and projection force, was likewise circumspect when it came to Trump’s plan to grow the fleet to 350 ships.
“That is a Herculean task, especially the track that we’re on right now to be able to have the industrial capacity to do that, but also to determine, what would that Navy look like in the years to come,” Wittman said.
He said he believed the build-up could be done, but said careful consideration should be given to the rate of build in order not to overtax industry, as well as which ship classes should make up the increase.
“What does the Navy of the future look like, what are the existing platforms to do that, and how do we integrate the newest elements of technology,” he said. “All those are compelling questions that we’ll have to answer, and we’ll have to answer those pretty quickly to make sure that we have the right composition of united states Navy to meet the challenges around the world.”
Regarding a smaller and more politically likely force increase — the plus-up of Marines from 182,000 to 185,000 built into the Fiscal 17 National Defense Authorization Act–Neller said he knew exactly how he planned to use the additional troops.
The 3,000 additional Marines, he said, would be a start to building out new capabilities, including information operations, intelligence analysis, electronic warfare, and cyber fields. Neller has spoken all year about these growing threat areas and how he wants to develop skilled communities of Marines trained to fight technologically sophisticated foes.
“So if you’ve got a little thing you wanted to put in my Christmas stocking that says 185K Marine Corps, I’d be very happy,” he said.