The Navy is quietly setting in motion plans to dramatically expand the size of the fleet by adding thousands of sailors who would be needed to meet the Trump administrations goal of a 355-ship Navy.
Internally, the Navy is targeting a force as large as 350,000 sailors – up more than 10 percent from today's end strength of approximately 322,000, according to several Navy officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While the timeline for that growth remains unclear, it tracks with widespread hopes across the Trump administration that the Navy will be able to add dozens of ships to today's fleet of 276 and expand its presence around the globe.
Recruiting goals are expanding rapidly, and on June 21, the Navy announced a big change to the "up-or-out" rules, a policy formally known as "high-year tenure," which forces underperforming sailors to leave the active-duty force if they fail to earn promotions on rigid timelines.
The new policy will raise those limits by two years for all sailors in pay grades E-4 through E-6, allowing the Navy to retain thousands of additional experienced sailors during the next several years. This policy change will officially go into effect Aug. 1.
For the Navy at large, pushing toward a fleet of 350,000 sailors would mark the the most dramatic manpower increase in decades.
And for individual sailors, the new policy change and the planned growth will open career opportunities and make the path to promotion — and full retirement — easier than it's been in a long time.
"This does set the Navy up to grow — if that's what the continued mandate calls for — because increasing ship numbers, a.k.a. increasing force structure, takes years," said Bill Hatch, a retired Navy commander who now teaches manpower policies at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
"But if you wait until the ships are built, you will not have the right quality of people to man ship requirements correctly — you have to be thinking about that."
Targeting these specific paygrades may also be a great opportunity to address the fleet's recent material conditions by keeping around those with experience in maintenance.
And by allowing more senior petty officers to stay in the ranks, they are more assured of the quality people in the force they need, too.
"A big positive in increasing high-year tenure over growing new sailors from scratch is that these sailors have all been vetted," Hatch said. "They've been through boot camp, so you don't have to worry about attrition there. And also, they've been through one to three enlistments and already made the decision to stay, as well as have the training and experience needed in the fleet."
Yet increasing high-year tenure won't work properly unless you also maintain or increase accessions, too, to sustain that growth over time.
That's why the Navy is also ratcheting up its recruiting mission for enlisted sailors. The goal to recruit 31,000 new enlisted sailors in 2016 rose to 35,000 in 2017 and now the Navy hopes to bring in 37,700 recruits for fiscal year 2018, Navy officials said.
Officially, the Navy says the immediate need for the policy change is to mitigate a temporary drop in sea-duty manning levels caused by a larger-than-normal cadre of sailors rotating from sea duty to shore over the next few years.
Navy officials are reluctant to speculate publicly about future force and manpower plans beyond the current budgetary cycle that extends through fiscal year 2018. This year's budget calls for the Navy to expand in 2018 to about 328,000 sailors, a near-term uptick of 5,500 troops.
Raising the high-year tenure caps for petty officers is expected to keep nearly 3,000 more sailors in the ranks in the near term. Specifically, the changes include:
- Increasing E-4 high-year tenure limits to 10 years, up from 8 years.
- Increasing E-5 high-year tenure limits to 16 years, up from 14 years.
- Increasing E-6 high-year tenure limits to 22 years, up from 20 years.
The changes to up-or-out rules do not directly impact the chiefs mess. Navy personnel officials say the cadre of sailors at the paygrades E-7, E-8 and E-9 who are bumping up against high-year tenure limits is relatively small and can be addressed with individual waivers.
The shift in policy will have both short and long-term implications for the Navy.
It will help the Navy's recent effort to keep sea-duty manning at high levels. The change comes on the heels of a February deal that Navy personnel officials offered to sailors already on sea duty. For those willing to voluntarily extend in their current sea-duty billets for up to two years, the Navy agreed to waive traditional up-or-out rules.
That incentive prompted about 1,500 volunteers who agreed to spend on average about 15 more months at sea. That program remains in effect, for now, and officials say they'll continue to consider high-year tenure waivers for sea duty volunteers.
"We are concerned about the potential impact on future fleet manning if we don't take proactive action now to keep more sailors at sea to finish their first sea tours and thus avoid a significant decline [in fleet manning]," said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.
"Extending our high-year tenure policy for journeyman sailors is part of the larger strategy to ensure we are able to mitigate the effects caused by the FY12-13 cohort groups rotating to shore duty," Christensen said. "We are aggressively using all force-shaping levers to man the fleet."
The Navy has endured two drawdowns since the end of the Cold War that took the Navy from nearly half a million sailors down to a low point of just 317,000 a few years ago.
The dwindling need for sailors in recent years made advancements especially competitive and resulted in the forced separation of thousands of sailors under the up-or-out rules.
The force cuts also led to the 2011 Enlisted Retention Boards that cut nearly 3,000 mid-grade petty officers in a period of about six months.
But now, an expansion like the one under discussion would be mostly good news for those serving in today's Navy.
With a Navy on the verge of increases in ships and sailors over the next couple decades, those manpower trends would reverse and usher in an era of steadily increasing advancement and reenlistment opportunities.
Among President Trump's top campaign promises related to national security was a vow to increase the size of the Navy's surface fleet, which today is less than half the size of the nearly 600-ship force of the late 1980s.
Yet Trump's plan remains hazy. Current budget plans provide no details on how the Navy will pay for dozens of additional ships.
While the proposal is popular at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, it doesn't come with a timetable.
Support inside the Navy for growing the force predates Trump.
Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, before he left office earlier this year, announced the results of a year-long "Force Structure Assessment" that determined the Navy needs to grow to a fleet of 355 ships over the next 30 years.
"All of the analysis done to date, inside and outside of the Navy, recognizes, as we have for nearly the last eight years, the need for a larger Fleet," Mabus said shortly before leaving office in January.
The force structure assessment would help plan a 2018 budget that puts the Navy on an "upward glide slope" toward the near-term goal of 308 ships, with a long-term goal set for 355.
This 30-year plan calls for increases of one more aircraft carrier, 16 more large surface combatants and 18 more attack submarines. Also included are four more amphibious warfare ships, three more expeditionary support bases and five more support ships.
Yet Mabus's plan appears to have focused on ships and hardware and did not include projections about the increased personnel needed to man the increasing numbers of ships.
Multiple Navy officials told Navy Times that the conventional wisdom is that a future 355-ship Navy would require between 340,000 and 350,000 sailors. Additional studies may be needed to address the number of personnel required for the increased fleet size, officials said.
"The drawdown is over and all the services are now growing again," said Larry Korb, a retired Navy Captain and former Pentagon personnel chief who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
"The Navy is already increasing to 305 ships and it's safe to assume they'll need more sailors as they now move in the direction of a larger force."
Korb said that he's not sure the Navy will get to 355, soon or even at all, but that it's clear the service will grow not only in ships, but in people.
"It's not happening overnight and to grow that much in people will take at least a decade," he said. "But this does help position them to grow in a measured manner over time as they need."
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.