The future force structure of the U.S. Marine Corps has been the subject of considerable debate – and a formal Corps review – for some time. The end of combat operations in Iraq and corresponding surge in Afghanistan, cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, problems and delays with the F-35B, and increased demands on both regular and special operations components, have raised concerns about where the Corps is going – and how it plans to get there.
The recently completed Force Structure Review examined future Corps organization and capabilities in a tight budget, post-Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan environment. It recommended a major restructuring – including a reduction in force of about 15,000. Specific cuts included reducing regimental headquarters from eight to seven, infantry battalions from 27 to 24, artillery battalions from nine to seven – while reorganizing batteries to support distributed operations – and eliminating two of the Corps’ ten armor companies.
However, the plan also calls for a renewed emphasis on specialized Marine components and operations. That includes a 67 percent increase in cyber warfare efforts by augmenting communications and radio battalions and adding 251 network specialists to Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command, creating a fourth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) battalion (200 warfighters) within the Reserves and adding about 1,000 more Marines – a 44 percent increase – to the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), primarily in critical combat support and combat service support roles.
“Today, the Corps serves as America’s expeditionary force in readiness – a balanced air-ground-logistics team of 202,000 active, 39,600 Reserve and 35,000 civilian Marines,” Gen. James F. Amos, who became Corps Commandant in October, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 8, 2011. “For approximately 8.5 percent of the annual defense budget, the Marine Corps provides the nation 31 percent of its ground operating forces, 12 percent of its fixed wing tactical aircraft and 19 percent of its attack helicopters.”
Even as the Marines begin working on the Force Structure Review Group’s recommendations, Amos voiced concern that a contentious congressional budget debate would create funding chaos for the Corps.
“A continuing resolution could prove catastrophic to our procurement accounts, resulting in the loss of almost one-third of our procurement budget,” he warned lawmakers. “As of today, $567 million in military construction contracts have not been awarded; $2.4 billion of MILCON [military construction] is at risk for the remainder of the year.
“Our equipment abroad and at home stations has been heavily taxed in nearly 10 years of constant combat operations. The price tag for reset is $10.6 billion, of which $3.1 billion has been requested in FY11 and $2.5 billion is being sought in FY12. The remaining $5 billion will be needed upon the completion of our mission in Afghanistan.”
Amos also has used congressional testimony and public speaking engagements to express both the Corps’ and his personal commitment to the troubled short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The UK announcement that it was going to procure the CV variant F-35C instead of the STOVL F-35B to which it had formerly been committed put added pressure on the Marine Corps variant, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates put on a two-year “probation” to resolve cost, weight and performance problems or face cancellation.
“The F-35B program has made significant progress to date . . . I am confident we will field this aircraft in accordance with responsible timelines. This matter has my unwavering attention and I am personally overseeing this program,” Amos wrote in a Force Structure report sent to Congress March 1, 2011. “With a fully-fielded fleet of F-35Bs, the nation will maintain 22 capital ships – 11 carrier and 11 amphibious assault – with Fifth-Generation strike assets aboard, a significant deterrent and response capability.”
In his testimony to SASC, Amos also predicted the F-35B would be out of probation well before the end of the two years set by Gates. The Commandant’s comments were supported in testimony from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, the F-35 deputy program manager. However, for the first time Amos also confirmed the Corps would convert some of its planned F-35B buy to the Navy F-35C carrier variant.
During a media roundtable in February, Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, echoed Amos’ assessment that the post-OEF Corps must be “right-sized” as a middleweight, fast-reaction force. That involves increasing high-demand operational billets by reducing or eliminating low-demand non-operational posts and ensuring a smaller Corps is a better trained, better equipped and even more flexible, multi-capability force.
“Think of a Corps that is lighter, attuned to the crisis response mission for every battalion, with augmentation packages we think will give us efficiencies as we reset the force,” he said. “We need to decide what needs to go now and what later to free up forces to do short-term needs.
“To pay the bill, we are reducing infantry battalions, 21 headquarters and some aviation squadrons, plus some consolidation. We’re also going to take away some command layers to make the structure leaner and more effective. We’re using the Quadrennial Defense Review, national security strategy, OSD planning tools, all military strategy documents that apply, including requirements from geographic COCOMs, and putting them through the lens of some standing operations plans to make sure what requirements are there.”
That will not happen quickly, he added, but in measured steps based on Marine Corps commitments through this decade. Because the force originally grew to handle sustained combat operations in SW Asia, “we’re not going down in force structure until after the commitment to Afghanistan declines,” he added.
“The purpose of the Force Structure Review was not so much to reduce the force, but to anticipate the future and take a very deliberative look at post-OEF force requirements,” Flynn concluded. “We really want to focus on what the force will need to do in the future and how do we begin shaping forces now to get there.
“We need 202,000 now to maintain the level of operations in Afghanistan, but after Afghanistan, we need to be prepared to reduce that force, but do it right and match needed capability with needed capacity. And based on guidance we saw in the QDR and other policy documents, we’re not seeing sustained operations in the future.”