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A force of 174,000: Corps will cut Marines to save readiness

Sep. 23, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Exercise Eager Lion 12
Federally mandated budget cuts will push the Corps to cut more ground combat units, including artillery batteries. (Staff Sgt. Robert Fisher/Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps faces a difficult period of transition that will include shedding thousands of personnel per year, sharpening its role as a crisis-response force and preparing for expanded operations outside of Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps faces a difficult period of transition that will include shedding thousands of personnel per year, sharpening its role as a crisis-response force and preparing for expanded operations outside of Afghanistan.

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The Marine Corps faces a difficult period of transition that will include shedding thousands of personnel per year, sharpening its role as a crisis-response force and preparing for expanded operations outside of Afghanistan.

Today, the state of the service is anchored by uncertainty as the U.S. operates under federally mandated budget cuts that have squeezed operations, maintenance, manpower planning and procurement. Even the Corps’ future size is unclear: Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told members of Congress in mid-September that the Corps has now developed a plan to reduce the active-duty force to 174,000 by the end of 2017 if the cuts known as sequestration remain in place.

That’s 8,000 fewer personnel than previously planned, and 12,800 fewer than the 186,800 end strength senior Marine officers advocated beginning in March 2011, after an extensive force structure review. That now may be be a best-case scenario, too: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned last month that the service could bottom out at 150,000 Marines unless Congress acts.

A 174,000-member Marine Corps is the “minimum acceptable” force, Amos said on Capitol Hill, adding that it would leave the service able to respond to only one major contingency. It will force broad slashes to the combat arms and aviation communities, requiring twice as many units to deactivate than first envisioned. Eleven combat arms battalions and 14 aviation squadrons will be cut, Amos said.

With no congressional compromise in sight, the year ahead will be tumultuous for the service, individual Marines and their families. But senior leaders shepherding the drawdown say they have a plan that will preserve the service’s core expeditionary capabilities, avoid painful involuntary separation measures and protect vital big-ticket procurement projects like the F35-B Joint Strike Fighter.

“This is a force structure that is clearly, directly related to sequestration,” Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie told Marine Corps Times during an interview Sept. 16at the Pentagon. As the Marine Corps’ representative to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, he is charged with helping to design a force that can meet current and anticipated national security needs based on strategicpriorities. “ It is not the force structure we would be at if we were living in a strategy driven environment.

“We are not saying this is a better, newer Marine Corps. We are saying this is the best Marine Corps we can give you under fiscal pressure.”

Here’s what it all means — for you and the institution:

Manpower.Senior officials believe they can hit the new personnel target without having to force out Marines before their contracts expire.

To date, manpower planners have executed the drawdown mostly through routine attrition and early out incentives, including premature retirements and cash buyouts. Doing so has allowed the service to reduce end strength gradually, by approximately 5,000 personnel a year.

The new drawdown plan also affords the Marine Corps an additional year to reach 174,000. The deadline was extended from the end of fiscal 2016 to the end of fiscal 2017. With a current end strength of approximately 195,000 and falling, that leaves a little more than four years to cut about 20,000 Marines. Officials say they’ll get there while eliminating fewer than 5,000 positions a year.

“If we stay under that, we will largely avoid using coercive measures to shape the force,” McKenzie said. “... I don’t think you are going to see large-scale reductions. The manpower guys are still looking at it. I can’t tell you there isn’t going to be some tinkering around the edges, but I am confident there aren’t going to be any draconian cuts ... where 5,000 people get their pink slips.”

Not all communities will be affected equally, though, because officials want to preserve critical capabilities. Units like Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group and Marine Corps Logistics Operations Group will be immune,McKenzie said. They fall under Training and Education Command and focus on improving ground combat operations and logistics support,respectively.

Also, specialized units like Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One, which is responsible for transporting the president, will be immune.

On the operational side, emerging communities like special operations and cyber also will be spared, said Brig. Gen. William Mullen, director of the Capabilities Development Directorate in Quantico, Va.

“We are definitely increasing the number of Marines involved in Cyber Command,” he said, “because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that is going to be the most challenging area. There are people coming after our nets every single day.”

Instead, the majority of the cuts will come from the largest communities: infantry battalions, artillery batteries, aviation squadrons. Mullen described such units as “the teeth of what we do.”

Everyone who remains in uniform can expect a high operational tempo. For every month deployed, Marines will get two months at home rather than three, as planned. That’s “unprecedented in a time of peace,” Amos told Congress.

Force structure.Officials say the “conceptual vision of employment” will be different with fewer Marines, focusing primarily on crisis-response missions rather than large, long-term combat operations.

“We designed the force,” McKenzie said, “looking at the new normal, being able to respond to contingencies that arise in the course of an afternoon.”

The Corps will beef up its Marine expeditionary brigades on the East Coast and in the Pacific, he said. Additionally, the II Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will be absorbed by Marine Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. The MEF’s division, wing and logistics group, will remain at Lejeune, allowing 2nd MEB to reorganize with a more robust headquarters element.

The end product will be a self-sustaining MEB that can deploy quickly, without drawing headquarters staff from the MEF. It would be able to support a Marine expeditionary unit if the need arose, function as a joint task force headquarters, or conduct large-scale humanitarian and disaster relief operations. The same model will be rolled out at 3rd MEB headquarters in Okinawa. First MEB, however, will remain untouched and still require support from I MEF headquarters to deploy.

There’s also new emphasis on establishing additional Marine air-ground task forces for crisis-response missions. There will be at least two — and possibly more — by 2017, each designed to fill gaps for the military’s geographic combatant commanders.

To minimize cuts to the operating forces, there is a concerted effort to cut headquarters staffs across the service, Mullen said. Some will be reduced by by 10 percent, and others by 20.

Big-ticket procurement.Despite the fiscal austerity, the Marine Corps is staking its future readiness on the procurement of a number of big-ticket items, even if that means deeper manpower cuts, Mullen said. By absorbing reductions there, the service can protect projects like the next-generation Amphibious Combat Vehicle and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.

Mullen called the ACV one of the service’s most important initiatives. It will move troops and equipment ashore from ships at sea, but it is unclear what it will look like and what attributes it will possess.

“That is not a done deal right now,” Mullen said. “The commandant will make a decision in December.”

Design teams are visiting with Marines in Hawaii and California — everyone from Amphibious Assault Vehicle officers to staff noncommissioned officers and battalion commanders — to determine what they need and what tradeoffs they are willing to make. Ultimately, speed may come at the cost of heavier armaments.

Efforts to procure the JLTV also will be protected. It’s seen as a necessary bridge between aging, vulnerable Humvees and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, which are too large for expeditionary operations. Prototypes of competing variants were delivered this summer to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., for 14 months of testing that will continue through fiscal 2014. In fiscal 2015, the Army and Marines Corps will award a contract to asingle manufacturer as part of a joint procurement effort.

During this push, small arms will take a back seat.

“A lot of people ask about when are we getting new weapons,” Mullen said. “But what we look at is, ‘is the stuff that we have now working?’ Yes. How long do we think it is going to continue working? Years. So the way money is going right now, we need to prioritize. Weapons aren’t it. It is vehicles.”

Aviation. Likewise, in the aviation community, the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and CH-53K heavy lift helicopter remain priorities.

In August, the F-35 underwent sea trials, conducting 95 vertical landings. That was 40 percent more than expected, putting testing for the next-generation fighter ahead of schedule, said Brig. Gen. Matthew Glavy, the assistant deputy commandant for aviation.

Meanwhile, roll-out is on schedule with 16 F-35s to be stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., by the end of September, he said. Elsewhere, construction projects to support the new aircraft are on schedule. Next year, Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, which operates the F-35, will relocate from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C.

Testing and development will move forward in the next year for the CH-53K, the Defense Department’s only program of record for a heavy-lift helicopter. It will be the first helicopter that can carry the same shipping pallets used on cargo aircraft without first breaking them down into smaller packages.

For that reason, Mullen said, the 53K is a protected program. “It can lift a great deal more, it can fly faster, it is more fuel efficient,” he said. “That capability is something we have to have. That has never been on the cutting board..”

Unmanned Aerial Systems also will be incorporated in a variety of missions ranging from resupply to electronic warfare. UAVs for large-scale electronic warfare are not part of the Corps’ immediate push, Mullen said. The EW pods carried by the EA-6B Prowler are too heavy and require too much power to be carried by the service’s current stable of UAVs. It’s expected the Prowler will be phased out by 2017.

“That’s where you run into problems, because the bigger the UAV, the more expensive it is,” Mullen said. “It is not just the UAV but all the support equipment.”

The Corps intends to fill the EW gap by using an array of other platforms, including the F-35B, small UAVs and perhaps EW payloads on helicopters. The relatively new RQ-21 Small Tactical Unmanned Air System could be used to knock out enemy communications during a raid on land or at sea. That would rob the enemy of radio communications, a capability MARSOC is likely to find appealing, Glavy said. It’s in testing at the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course in Yuma, where squad leaders have had the opportunity to experiment with it.

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