USMC Commandant, Lawmakers Weigh in on Defense Proposals
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps commandant would welcome the additional Marines that are being proposed in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but said he would not want to use them to add to the 12 infantry battalions and one tank battalion that President-elect Donald Trump is calling for.
Instead, Gen. Robert B. Neller said Dec. 7 he would prefer to use any additional personnel to fill roles necessary for the Corps to fight in the rapidly changing security environment, including cyber, information and electronic warfare, increased intelligence capabilities, greater mobility and short-range communications to use if the high-tech global networks are disrupted.
Addressing a U.S. Naval Institution forum and speaking later to reporters, Neller also expressed his concern about maintaining the high quality of his current personnel if he had to add thousands of Marine quickly, and the need for funding to pay for those additional Marines and the infrastructure required to support them.
The 2017 NDAA that Congress is expected to approve this week would add 3,000 Marines to the 182,000 currently planned. But Trump has said he would increase the Corps to 36 infantry battalions, from the current 24 active battalions, and add a third tank battalion. That number, which came from a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation, could require an additional 12,000 Marines.
“That’s a lot of people” that would have to be recruited under the all-volunteer force, Neller told the forum. And those additional battalions would require more than “just adding Marines,” they would need additional infrastructure to train and support them, he said. “We have the infrastructure to support 27 battalions,” he said, which includes three battalions in the Marine Corps Reserves.
“Can we do it? Absolutely. But we can’t do it overnight,” he said.
Neller said he also was concerned that “we have a very high-quality force. When you try to grow too fast, you can lose that quality. If that is what the [new] president wants to do, we will do it.”
Talking to reporters later, Neller said, “Before we begin to add infantry, we would want to look at the changing world” and “what we really need” to fight in that environment, listing those other less kinetic capabilities that would be essential to face a high-tech adversary such as Russia or China.
Asked about the loss of another Marine F/A-18 Hornet off Okinawa late Dec. 6, the general conceded that the rate of aircraft losses this year is “higher than we like. … We’re concerned about it.”
“The bottom line, we have to recapitalize Marine air,” he said.
The commandant said they did not know the cause of the accident and he still hoped the pilot, who ejected from his jet, would be recovered.
He said the continuing resolution (CR) that Congress is preparing to fund the government through April 28 would cause problems because if the defense appropriations that replaces the CR is higher, there would not be much time to execute contracts and to spend the additional money on what the Corps needs.
The proposed CR would allow some exceptions to the usual extension of spending at the previous year’s level, including additional funds to keep the programs to replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and the next nuclear aircraft carriers on track.
Also addressing the forum, Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), said of the plans from the Republican-controlled Congress and Trump to rebuild the military, “there’s no way we can afford that.”
“We have a president-elect who wants to cut taxes, but also increase the defense budget. You can’t do that,” Smith said, calling instead for creating “a long-term budget, then figure out what the military establishment can do within that.”
Speaking after Smith, Rep. Rob Wittman, a senior HASC Republican, said there was a chance Congress and Trump could repeal or change the 2010 Budget Control Act that limits defense spending. But to do that, he said, would require a comprehensive budget agreement that addresses “the automatic spending increases,” which means entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.
Asked about the growing number of former military officers Trump has nominated for top cabinet positions, Smith said retired Marine Gens. James Mattis and John Kelly were “as fine human beings as I’ve ever worked with.”
But he had a sharply different view of retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who he said “is not qualified to do that job” as national security advisor because of his role in promoting false news stories.
On Mattis and Kelly, Smith said, “We should have hearings on what it means” to have recently retired officers holding key national security posts as secretaries of defense and homeland security.
Congress would have to enact waivers to allow officers who retired less than seven years ago to serve in federal civilian posts.