Sailors and Marines watch from the hangar bay as amphibious assault ship Peleliu transits the Hong Kong Victoria Harbor in April. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dustin Kni)
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The Marine Corps has launched a review of strategic options that could lead to a further reduction in the size of the force — less than the 182,100 personnel that has been its end-strength goal for more than a year, the service’s top officer said.
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told the House Armed Services Committee on April 16 that the review began last month and will conclude sometime in May. It assumes there will be an additional $500 billion in cuts to the Defense Department budget over the next 10 years. That is the department’s estimated portion of the sequestration cuts, the drastic budget reductions triggered March 1 by Congress’ inability to reach agreement on a better way to reduce the federal deficit.
Amos said he assumes the Corps’ planned shift to more operations in the Pacific will continue, but the size of the force and the number of missions it will be able to undertake will be reduced if the budget cuts stay in place.
“We’re going to do less with less,” Amos told the House committee. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it poorly or we’re going to do it inadequately. We’ll do it the very best we possibly can.”
The Corps is in the process of drawing down from 202,100 Marines to 182,100, the number announced early last year ahead of the release of the fiscal 2013 budget. At the time, top Marine officials had been advocating to reduce the Corps to 186,800 Marines, but the Pentagon decided it would be necessary to reduce end strength further.
Amos said on the Hill that if sequestration is kept in place, cutting the Corps to 182,100 Marines is no longer sustainable.
“I’m going to come down some number below that,” he said. “I don’t know yet how low that number is going to be. That number then will dictate the capacity to be able to be forward deployed, forward engaged.”
The commandant said his primary concern is that at least a piece of the Defense Department has to be a “hedge force” focused on crisis response, a role he has said repeatedly should belong to the Corps.
“You need some portion of the Department of Defense engaged or deployed at a high state of readiness, and that’s us,” he said. “If we go below … 182,000 and we embrace the full $500 billion [in cuts] it’s going to be, we’re going to do less with less.”
The commandant’s testimony is among the latest reminders that the Marine Corps’ drawdown plans are still in flux. Amos told Congress that if the budgetary environment remains unchanged, the number of infantry battalions in the Corps could soon end up “in the teens.” Currently, the service has 27 battalions, with plans to deactivate four while drawing down to 182,100 Marines.
Amos was asked during the House Armed Services Committee hearing what kind of stress a larger drawdown would put on the Corps if a new, major war was launched. A major theater war typically calls for about 19 Marine battalions, he said, just a few less than the 23 active-duty infantry units the Corps would have after the drawdown under current plans.
“As we go down … headed to 182,100, that would give us a couple of battalions over, you know, beyond, if you just deployed everybody,” the commandant said of the hypothetical war. “That’s actually pretty reasonable, because they are going to be combat replacements, and there is going to be a need for more Marines to replace those [who] are wounded and those [whom] we lose.”
The smaller force would mean the Corps would become a “go-to-war-and-come-home-when-it’s-over force,” Amos said. Shrinking the Corps any smaller than 23 infantry battalions would create tremendous strain during any large war in the future, he said.
The fiscal crisis is making it necessary for the Corps to shift its existing money around to ensure units can deploy in a high state of readiness. As a result, training for other units not preparing to deploy is slipping.
“We are eating our seed corn right now for the readiness for those units that aren’t on the slate to deploy until next year,” Amos said. “We’re taking money away from their training; taking equipment away from them; taking money away from the sustainment of their equipment. And we are eating that seed corn right now to ensure that I have near-term readiness.”