Marine Corps Leaders Warn Troop Cuts May Go Too Far

By Sandra I. Erwin

As Congress gears up to consider military funding requests for 2016, the Marine Corps is likely to argue that under the current budget law, its forces are being cut too precipitously.

The current active-duty force of 187,900 would have to drop to 182,000 under strict funding limits mandated by the 2011 budget law. At that reduced size, the Marine Corps would have to stretch its forces thin and might have to keep troops deployed longer than the standard seven-month tours, said Maj. Gen. Andrew O'Donnell Jr., deputy commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

"We are trying to find that sweet spot in this fiscal environment where the number should be, and the right size of the force. We think it should be somewhere around 182,000 to 184,000," he said Jan. 14 at the Surface Navy Association annual conference.

Echoing a similar contention made by Army leaders, Marines insist that new security crises that have erupted over the past year should spur a fresh discussion about military downsizing goals.

At its wartime high, the Corps had 202,000 troops. Marines have mostly left Afghanistan, where they had 6,500 troops last year and now only have 120. But they are stepping up deployments to Europe and the Middle East, O'Donnell said. Of about 110,000 Marines who are assigned to combat duties, 31,000 are deployed. Three Marine Expeditionary Units are in the Western Pacific. Another 2,000 Marines have been assigned to "rapid response" duties under U.S. Africa Command in the wake of the Benghazi crisis in Libya, and to Kuwait under U.S. Central Command to support the air war against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria.

Marine officials worry that they might not have enough forces to allow troops 14-month breaks in between seven-month deployments, as is currently the norm. When the force drops closer to 180,000, said O'Donnell, "it takes its toll" on people and equipment. The goal, he said, is to have at least one-third of the Marine Corps in overseas locations.

"The operating environment that we are in today has obviously changed," said O'Donnell. There is greater "unrest and instability, along with proliferation of advanced weapons."

Under Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford, the Marine Corps enters the budget debate for the first time in 14 years not being heavily committed to land wars and facing questions about its role now that these conflicts are over. A strategy unveiled in March 2014, called "Expeditionary Force 21," casts the Marine Corps as a maritime force that is needed around the world to "promote peace, deter threats and defeat aggressors."

Dunford is making big push to get the Navy behind the strategy, as the Corps would be heavily dependent on having enough available ships to transport Marines. Of the Navy's current fleet of 288 warships, 100 are now deployed with 42,000 sailors and 4,600 Marines.

O'Donnell said Dunford hosted a meeting Jan. 14 at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., with "all the senior leadership of the Marine Corps [and senior Navy staff] to talk about war fighting from the sea, and taking it to the enemy." Dunford's pitch stresses not only the need for possibly a larger force but also for more advanced ships and ground vehicles to allow Marines to operate in contested areas where enemies will be armed with laser-guided missiles and long-range artillery.

One major cause of anxiety in the Marine Corps in recent years has been its failure to acquire a new "amphibious" swimming combat vehicle to move Marines from ship to shore. An amphibious combat vehicle is being developed but it will be slower and less sophisticated than Marines originally wanted.

Despite their worries about funding cuts and force reductions, Marine officials — like all military leaders — must toe the political line.

O'Donnell insisted that the Marines are not complaining, and are prepared to do more with less. "We don't have everything that we'd like but I think we have everything that we need."

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Expeditionary Warfare

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