Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel didn't mention the Marine Corps much when he addressed the ways the military will suffer under decadelong budget cuts, but what he did mention was jarring: The service could be forced to shrink in size to 150,000 Marines. (Pfc. Timothy Childers / Marine Corps)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel didn’t mention the Marine Corps much when he addressed the ways the military will suffer under decadelong budget cuts, but what he did mention was jarring: The service could be forced to shrink in size to just 150,000 Marines.
The Corps plans to draw down to 182,100 Marines by the end of 2016. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos previously has stated that his service might have to cut another 8,000 Marines on top of that due to sequestration, bringing total end strength down to 174,000.
But Hagel said the service’s end strength could settle anywhere “between 150,000 and 175,000.”
If the Corps has to cut tens of thousands more Marines to get down to 150,000 — 18 percent of the 182,100 Marines that will be left after the current drawdown — the blow would be severe.
Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, emphasized that Hagel’s comments reflect a set of choices and options — not decisions.
“They are contingencies and prudent planning based on the current sequestration law put in place by Congress,” Flanagan said.
“The 174,000 is within the band of potential end strengths outlined by the recently completed [Strategic Choices and Management Review],” he said. “Based on exhaustive analysis, falling below this force structure will significantly increase risk.”
When Hagel ordered the SCMR this year to get a clear sense for how the military would deal with the decadelong, across-the-board spending cuts, the Marine Corps put forth a range of possible strength levels and force structures. Each level — from the least impactful to the most severe — was subjected to internal and external risk analysis.
Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the Corps’ representative to the Quadrennial Defense Review, led the team of Marines working on Hagel’s review. Whether they were asked to contemplate a cut to 150,000 Marines — the opposite end of that “band of potential end strengths” — and submit that as part of its report wasn’t immediately clear.
In June, Amos said the Corps could shed as many as 8,000 more Marines and reach the 174,000 threshold, but that would have consequences, both for the nation’s defense posture and for the ability of the service to “keep faith with Marines,” to include possibly breaking some personnel contracts.
About 172,000 Marines were on active duty at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The size of the service ballooned to 202,000 during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is shedding about 5,000 positions a year to get down to 182,100 by the end of fiscal 2016.
The 174,000 figure — the upper end of the range presented by Hagel — is the result of careful analysis and consideration, Flanagan said. The Marine Corps looked at the strategic landscape and shaped a service to meet those requirements, he said.
For now, the Marine Corps is still sticking to its plan to draw down to 182,100, Flanagan said. What happens after that is contingent on many factors, including whether Congress acts to prevent further budget cuts.
Hagel said the Navy could be forced to cut three carrier strike groups, which might compel a heavier reliance on expeditionary strike groups that transport Marine expeditionary units, a possibility that one leading naval analyst welcomes.
“Obviously, they wouldn’t have as much striking power as a [carrier strike group], but they would have the powerful addition of an embarked MEU, which could provide operational commanders greater flexibility in many low [to] moderate threat environments,” said retired Navy Capt. Jan van Tol, a former commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship Essex.
For the Marine Corps, readiness remains the top priority, Flanagan said. The Corps is committed to remaining the nation’s crisis response force. But doing so with fewer Marines means the service won’t be able to respond to everything — at least not immediately.
“It will be a ... force involved with theater security activities, reassuring our partners and allies, and deterring potential adversaries,” he said. “To maximize these capabilities, we will accept some risk at the high end of the spectrum of conflict.”