There’s a lot of talk out there about boosts to defense budgets here, cuts to others there, and Armed Services of increased sizes everywhere. But at this point, it must be made clear that it really is just talk. No president ever gets the budget they want – only Congress can spend money. No reason to get nervous or, alternatively, cocky.
But be that as it may, let’s take such intentions as a given and see how they play out in the real world.
The Army is ready to go! They have taken their marching orders and are ready to increase end strength by 28,000 troops this year. It doesn’t exactly turn on a dime but, when you consider the scale of it – it nudges the total Active, Reserve and Guard strength to just over one million people – that’s pretty fast. The history of the Army is one of rapid swings up and down.
Then there’s the Navy. Growth cannot move fast. Speed is not a thing. A ship is an enormous capital investment. The Navy might be able to get some new aircraft in short order, or maybe some other smaller equipment, but a new ship or submarine – the backbone of the force – will take years. The industrial base for rapid expansion does not exist. You can order new ships, but where will you build them? Who will do the labor? Pretty much everyone still capable of doing the work already is. So there’s a bit more legwork to do before making this a reality. And the will to do so must remain intact for years on end.
Simply maintaining a navy, let alone expanding one, requires enormous sustained political support across the executive and legislative branches, and the people they represent. Sea power maven Bryan McGrath articulates the need for a naval narrative here. We would do well to listen.
In short, maritime trade and freedom of the seas is the very basis for global prosperity. Threats to that flow must be deterred (preferably) or eliminated (occasionally). But the forces to do so cannot simply be called into existence – if you need them, you’d better already have them. And if you don’t, someone else will fill the vacuum… probably someone unattractive.
So what will happen now? Despite the big numbers being thrown around not a whole lot, even if they become law. Readiness will be improved; the current force could be brought into slightly better shape. But actual growth? Not during this presidential term.