Defense Media Network

Marine Corps Update: The Frugal Force Faces More Cuts

For the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) smallest component, personnel and budget issues have been historic challenges, but few could match the current “perfect storm” of greater-than-expected reductions in force, ever-tighter budgets, sequestration, furloughs, and a three-week government “shut down” to start the fiscal year. All this has been taking place while the Corps has been responding to the administration’s “Pacific pivot” – focusing less on Europe and the Middle East and more on Asia and the Pacific, where a dearth of land bases is placing greater emphasis on naval forces.

As what Commandant Gen. James F. Amos calls the nation’s “frugal force,” the Marine Corps went from 172,000 personnel on 9/11 – down 25,000 during the 1990s – to a 2008 peak of 202,000, the most active-duty Marines since the end of the Korean War. The pre-9/11 numbers were too low to maintain training and readiness, according to Amos. In the years that followed, the Corps underwent a rapid and continuous buildup as it dealt with shortages imposed by a previous decade in which ground forces were subordinate to technology.

“Marines found themselves short of critical capabilities in intelligence collection and analysis, in communication, and in mobility on land, sea, and in the air. Marines didn’t have enough light attack and utility aviation helicopters, for example. They also didn’t have all the training teams needed to advise and assist other countries in enhancing their own security,” Amos told the III Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) on Okinawa on Sept. 16, 2013. “The new challenges of the 21st century also meant rooting out technologically savvy enemies who blended into the urban terrain and populace that sheltered them.”

“Based on the detailed planning of our working group, and in conjunction with independent analysis, we have determined that with sequestered budgets, a force design of 174,000 is right-sized to allow the Marine Corps to remain America’s crisis response force.”

That led to creation of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), the fourth and final service component of the joint U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), in 2006, and Marine Forces Cyberspace Command (MARFORCYBER) in 2010. Both have been approved for personnel increases even as the overall Corps shrinks.

The first downsizing goal was 186,800 Marines, a number identified by a 2010 Force Structure Review (FSR) as the “optimal size” to be “fully ready to meet the ever-increasing demands of the global security environment,” Amos told Congress on Sept. 18. But even greater reductions in force, a budget projected to be half the Marines’ 2008 peak of $50 billion and, especially, sequestration, led to creation of a second working group in mid-2013.

“Based on the detailed planning of our working group, and in conjunction with independent analysis, we have determined that with sequestered budgets, a force design of 174,000 is right-sized to allow the Marine Corps to remain America’s crisis response force,” Amos told lawmakers. “This allows us to achieve a high state of readiness while maintaining forward presence as a part of the Navy-Marine Corps team. Analysis shows that further reductions will incur heightened and, in some scenarios, prohibitive risk to our National Security Strategy and unacceptable risk to the internal health of our Corps and its families.”

26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Lt. Col. Kevin Collins, commanding officer of Combat Logistics Battalion 26, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, gives his Marines a liberty brief on the flight deck of the USS San Antonio, Sept. 6, 2013. The Marine Corps is facing personnel cuts that will reduce the service to 174,000 Marines. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Juanenrique Owings

In what Maj. Gen. Kenneth F. “Frank” McKenzie, the Corps’ representative to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), termed “a force structure that is clearly, directly related to sequestration,” the new numbers will require the deactivation of twice as many combat arms battalions and aviation squadrons as the original FSR proposed.

“This was not a strategy-driven effort. It was a budget-driven effort,” Amos told a House Armed Service Committee (HASC) hearing on sequestration Sept. 18. “Our exhaustive research, backed by independent analysis, determined that a force of 174,000 Marines is the smallest force that can meet mission requirements … with levels of risk that are minimally acceptable.

“The [174,000 Marine] force accepts risk when our nation commits itself to its next major theater war. In plain terms, we will have 11 fewer combat arms battalions and 14 fewer aircraft squadrons to swiftly defeat our adversary. [But] I am particularly concerned about the long-lasting and devastating impacts of sequestration. Scheduled tiered readiness is not an option for the Marine Corps – we must be prepared when crises erupt.”

At a Modern Day Marine conference with industry in late September, Brig. Gen. John Jansen, assistant deputy commandant for programs and resources, said sequestration will cut another $2 billion a year from the Corps budget during the next five years. And while Marines will continue to be stationed overseas – and, increasingly, in the Asia-Pacific region to more quickly respond to regional contingencies – installations, maintenance, training, acquisition, and weapons development will see money diverted to cover that expense.

However, speculation that the Corps could be slashed to as few as 150,000 Marines by 2017 – the fewest since the start of the Korean War and far below Amos’ smallest acceptable size – has continued since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel mentioned it at a Pentagon news conference in July. The response within the Marine Corps was to begin planning for a less-than-minimal force plagued with even harsher training, equipment, maintenance, and readiness issues.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...