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U.S. Marine Corps Year in Review

After a decade of growth in size and capability, 2012 – the centennial of Marine Corps aviation – should have been one of the best in Corps history. Instead, the Marines face a sharply reduced budget, greater-than-expected reductions in force, continuing questions about the future of the F-35B STOVL (short takeoff/vertical landing) fighter, and a downsized U.S. foreign presence that the commandant warned Congress would create a “void [that] will be filled by another nation.”

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in November 2011 as Congress was debating the FY 2012 Defense Authorization Bill, Marine Commandant Gen. James F. Amos predicted downsizing already instituted or planned had worsened the global security environment.

“Our lack of foreign presence as a result of drawing back, because we can’t afford the operations and maintenance funds to be deployed forward – we can’t afford the ships, we can’t afford the personnel to be able to do that – will be filled by somebody,” he told lawmakers. “That void will be filled by another nation.

“And the net result? We don’t know what that might be, but down the road it could mean a lack of access, a lack of ability to engage and shape a nation around the world that our country believes is important to be involved in.”

Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011

U.S. Marine Cpl. Jesse Williams loads an 81 mm mortar round into the tube of Gun 8 during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011. The ridgeline of Townshend Island, in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area, was lined with members of the U.S. Marine Corps 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, who were providing mortar fire support during the exercise. Australian Department of Defence photo by Cpl. Janine Fabre

The Corps already had been working on how to draw down from 202,000 personnel built up during a decade of combat in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF-Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) to a new “peacetime” level of 186,000 by 2014. But on Jan. 5, 2012, shortly after signing a 2012 budget that marks the start of what could be up to $1 trillion in Department of Defense (DoD) spending cuts in the next decade, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new force target of only 175,000 Marines, roughly pre-9/11 levels.

“With this change in strategy, there’s good reason to be concerned with reductions in end strength for the Marine Corps and the Army and discarding the capability of the U.S. military to engage an enemy on multiple fronts,” warned Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran, echoing the concerns Amos conveyed to the HASC two months earlier. “These adjustments alone could have serious consequences for U.S. national security and underscore the necessity for Congress and the administration to proceed with caution.”

As for the global vacuum cited by Amos, Hunter said that already could be seen in continuing threats of terrorism, China’s expanding military, a potentially nuclear Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz – through which one-fifth of the world’s oil moves daily – and the uncertainty of leadership change in North Korea.

The Marine Corps had no official reaction to Panetta’s announcement or Hunter’s comments, but Amos already had told Congress the Corps would do everything it could to provide whatever capabilities the nation might need to remain the world’s “only credible remaining super power.”

“As we face inevitable difficult resource decisions, we must also consider how we can best mitigate the inherent risk of a reduced defense capacity. Like an affordable insurance policy, the Marine Corps and the Navy’s amphibious forces represent a very efficient and effective hedge against the nation’s most likely risks,” the commandant told lawmakers.

Anticipating deep budget cuts, in 2011 Amos recommended cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, recapitalizing those funds for a new amphibious vehicle, accelerating production of an advanced-generation eight-wheeled armored Marine Personnel Carrier, updating the Corps’ Humvee fleet, and pushing forward with the F-35B.

U.S. Marine Coprs MV-22 Osprey

Cpl. William Cox, an armorer at the Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest, provides security as an MV-22 Osprey lands in Zaranj, Nimroz province, Dec. 30, 2011. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Bryan Nygaard

The new reality facing the Corps in 2012, however, has forced a revisit of the Force Structure Review (FSR) the Marines began in 2010, completed in early 2011, and were preparing to implement as the year came to a close. The intent of the review was to “right size” the Marine Corps for a post-OIF/OEF environment, while ensuring it remains what Amos termed the nation’s “middleweight” force – “light enough to get there quickly, but heavy enough to carry the day upon arrival. We operate throughout the spectrum of threats – irregular, hybrid, or conventional – or the shady areas where they overlap.”

That 186,000 was the result of extensive calculations that included growing two new components to joint commands – the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC, assigned to the U.S. Special Operations Command) and Marine Forces Cyberspace Command (MARFORCYBER, part of U.S. Cyber Command [CYBERCOM]) – while also being able to respond to needs across the globe. In testimony before Congress in October 2011, USMC Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., said significant reductions below that number could create a “hollow force.”

Even 186,000 is only enough to respond to “a single major contingency,” he told lawmakers, but fewer Marines would make even that impossible, especially as they also continue to assist with humanitarian, counter-piracy, and disaster relief operations around the world and devote more resources to MARSOC and CYBERCOM.

“We will not be able to do those kinds of things on a day-to-day basis. We will not be able to meet the combatant commanders’ requirements for forward-deployed, forward-engaged forces,” Dunford warned. “We will not be there to deter our potential adversaries. We won’t be there to assure our potential friends or to assure our allies. And we certainly won’t be there to contain small crises before they become major conflagrations.”

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