Gen. Amos: Marine Corps Can Tighten Its Belt, But Must Have F-35B
The commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos says the service can adjust to shrinking budgets and still expand its global presence.
After fighting ground wars for a decade, the Corps is ready to return to its pre-9/11 maritime role, Amos insists. He has argued that becoming more “expeditionary” will allow the Corps to solidify its niche as the nation’s indispensible emergency-response force.
But as the Pentagon confronts budget cuts in the coming years, isn’t the Corps’grand vision for the future a bit too expensive?
Not necessarily, Amos says during an Oct. 26 forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, in Washington, D.C.
Yes, being forward deployed around the world requires ships, aircraft, trained troops and other costly resources. But there are ways to executive this strategy without breaking the bank, says Amos.
The United States already is paying for the troops and the hardware. But instead being permanently stationed stateside waiting to respond to crises, a percentage of the Corps could be forward-deployed in areas that are considered of national security interest, says Amos.
The Navy has been looking at “home porting” some ships outside the continental United States so marines would be able to share those assets, Amos says. He contends that having marines serve aboard those ships overseas would save time, fuel and other expenses, compared to training at U.S. bases.
With limited resources, the Marine Corps would have to be selective in where it goes. The Pacific is one area where marines most likely will be needed, Amos says. “It’s in our nation’s best interest to reorient back to the Pacific.” That will require more training in “shipboard and combined arms operations,” he adds.
But no matter how frugal marines might be, there is no escaping to the reality that much of the hardware that the Corps would need for amphibious expeditionary operations is vulnerable to budget cuts. The “Gator” fleet, which includes amphibious assault ships, dock landing ships and air-cushioned landing craft, is aging and shrinking in numbers. Then there is the much-coveted new amphibious vehicle that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the Corps to terminate after 15 years in development and huge cost overruns. Although Gates allowed the Marine Corps to fund a replacement for that vehicle, the project has been slowed down pending further analysis on what the required features should be. If Pentagon budgets decline in the coming years, however, a new vehicle might not materialize.
Another piece of the ship-to-shore war machine that the Marine Corps views as essential is the F-35B short takeoff and landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. That program currently is “on probation” until next year, when Pentagon acquisitions officials will determine whether earlier technical glitches have been fixed.
Of all the Marine Corps programs that would be most at risk in a funding crunch, the F-35B tops the list. Amos again made a case that the aircraft is not just a nice-to-have exotic weapon, but a vital piece of the nation’s ability to respond to security crises. Unlike the Navy’s version of the F-35, the Marine Corps’ variant can land and take off from ships and short runways.
Amos even hinted that, if budget pressured increased to the point that the Marine Corps would have to choose between funding equipment or personnel, he would consider shrinking the force below the 186,800-size goal that he agreed to. The current force of 202,000 would begin to come down following the end of combat in Afghanistan.
“If this [budget pressure] continues to increase I’m going to end up reducing the Marine Corps below 186,800,” Amos says. “I’m not sure 186 is the floor.”
Former Secretary Robert Gates signed off on that force size, following 10 months of analysis as part of a “force structure review.” But Gates made that call in February, before the administration called for $400 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade.
Amos says that 10 years of rising budgets have created a “culture of plenty” and that the Marine Corps is prepared to downsize, but not to compromise essential modernization programs such as F-35B and a new light truck known as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.
From a current inventory of 40,000 ground vehicles, the Corps plans to shed 10,000 that it will not need post-Afghanistan, Amos says.
The fight for the F-35B only will intensify. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told lawmakers that he does not expect the Pentagon will be able to afford all three variants — the Air Force’s, the Navy’s and the Marine Corps.’
Already Pentagon insiders have hinted that as the pot of money available for new weapons shrinks, inter-service rivalries will erupt. A retired Marine Corps general in the audience at the CFR forum asked Amos to comment on whisper campaigns spearheaded by a “small, vocal minority who disparages other services and doesn't help.” Amos says he is not aware of any such thing. “The relationship [among the services] has never been better,” he says.