Marine Corps Prepares for Deep Force Cuts, Reorganizes Combat Units

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Marine Corps is taking steps to reorganize its forces in anticipation of deep budget cuts over the next several years. Most notably, the Corps would eliminate one of its three-star war-fighting command headquarters and would shift responsibilities to other organizations.

The latest force redesign happened this spring, following the completion of a Pentagon-wide budget drill known as the strategic choices and management review, or SCMR. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the review in preparation for a decade of across-the-board spending cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The Marine Corps had hoped to downsize from a wartime peak of 202,000 troops to 186,000. After sequestration became law in March, that goal was considered unaffordable, said Maj. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, who is overseeing the Marine Corps’ portion of the quadrennial defense review, a long-term strategic plan that the defense secretary must submit to Congress every four years. The 2014 QDR is due in February.

In its post-SCMR review, the Corps revised its target down to 182,000, but even that was considered ambitious under sequestration. The Marine Corps is now redesigning the force in preparation for having to downsize to 174,000, McKenzie said Sept. 19 at a breakfast meeting in Arlington, Va., hosted by the Navy League.

“If we face sequestration, 182,000 is not feasible, we have to go to 174,000,” he said. A smaller force would be able to respond to crises but would be less prepared to fight a major war, McKenzie explained. “We take risks in major combat operations and long-term stability operations,” he said. “You cannot continue to do everything. We take risk in the higher end.”

Under the latest plan, the Corps would start shedding about 5,000 Marines per year through 2017.

The three-star headquarters of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., would be disestablished, McKenzie said. That is one of the Corps’ current three corps-level MEFs.

That headquarters’ functions would shift to Norfolk, Va., under Marine Corps Forces Command, which is also a three-star organization.

Forces Command would be responsible for all combat units in the East Coast of the United States.

“Taking a three-star headquarters away for us is pretty significant,” said McKenzie. That would leave the Corps with two: III MEF in Okinawa, Japan; and I MEF in Camp Pendleton, Calif.
I MEF would take on a broader role as the “global war fighter for the Marine Corps” that could be deployed anywhere, said McKenzie.

Marine expeditionary brigades in Camp Lejeune (2nd MEB) and Okinawa (3rd MEB) would have stand-alone headquarters under the reorganization, and would be required to be ready to deployed anywhere. “That's a significant change,” McKenzie insisted.

A smaller force would be away from home more frequently, he noted. Under the 186,000 force plan, Marines would deploy for six months and return to the United States for the next 18. In a Corps of 174,000, Marines would only be home for 12 months before their next deployment. “We'll be the only service that accepts one-to-two dwell time,” said McKenzie.

In addition to force reductions, there might be terminations of weapon systems as a result of sequestration, although McKenzie declined to mention specific ones. He stressed that the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and the new amphibious combat vehicle are the Corps’ highest equipment priorities. A new truck, the joint light tactical vehicle, is still “being assessed under the budget process,” McKenzie told the Navy League audience of military contractors. “I have nothing new on JLTV for you,” he said.

McKenzie is leading the QDR at a time when the review is being overshadowed by a budget cliffhanger in Washington that threatens to shut down the federal government if no agreement is reached to fund agencies by Sept. 30.

“Most people seem to think that ultimately it [the QDR] will have marginal impact on the larger business of the department,” McKenzie said.

The 2014 review is the fifth such study since Congress first directed it in 1997. It must forecast what the military will be doing over the next 20 years and what size force would be needed to carry out those missions.

It is hard to see how the Pentagon can forecast its future decades out when it remains paralyzed by a budget impasse and the lack of a full-year appropriation for 2014.

McKenzie noted that the QDR in none of its four previous iterations achieved Congress’ intended goal of providing a long-term forecast. It has always had a much shorter horizon, he said, for budgetary reasons.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, War Planning, Expeditionary Warfare, Procurement

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