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Marines Grope For Answers As Uncertain Future Looms

Posted by Carlo Munoz on


Washington: Last fall, the Marine Corps had a plan for what it would look like after Afghanistan. That picture appears increasingly out of focus as the service braces itself for impending budget cuts, the commandant said today.

The Marines’ will fall far below the 186,000-man total force it had initially aimed for once combat operations wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. James Amos said this morning. The four-star general couldn’t comment on how far that number will fall, saying it was being worked inside the Pentagon. But the final figure will likely be part of the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2012 budget plan to be released this February. That plan will detail at least $260 billion in defense cuts over the next decade.

If approved, that budget plan means the Marines will have to do more with less. Less troops. Less equipment. Less of . . . well, pretty much everything. But that is something the service has grown accustomed to “over the past 236 years,” according to the four-star general. Taking only 7 percent to 8 percent of the entire defense budget on average, the Marines will be the Pentagon’s “risk mitigation force” as the department prepares to drop down to force levels not seen since World War I and II. Marines “eat [meals ready-to-eat] and sleep on the ground,” and don’t need “fancy” amenities that other services may require when they operate. Simply put, the Marines will still be able to do their job anywhere in the world no matter how many troops are in the force.

But service bravado aside, dropping below 186,000 troops does put the service’s entire post-Afghanistan force strategy at risk. That total force number was the lynchpin to the service’s force structure review completed last fall. That plan sought to move the Marines away from its image as a “second land Army” to a more agile and lethal force. It focused more on special operations and cyberwarfare. It brought the Marines back to its amphibious roots. It was also an attempt by the Marines to dictate the terms on how small it would have to get to meet the Pentagon’s deficit reduction goals. But ever since “things started unraveling” economically, much of that plan is now in doubt, Amos said. If or when the Marines drop below that 186,000 figure, the service will be “at risk . . . for being able to take your Marine Corps and deploy it to a major contingency operation to do what our nation expects us to do,” Amos told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Nov. 3.

The future of the Marines’ plan hangs largely on what the congressional Super Committee ends up doing, Amos said. The bipartisan panel has just a few days left to cut $1.2 trillion from the national budget. If the panel can’t do its job, the military will — in theory — be automatically hit with a $500 billion cut. Added to the cuts already mandated by the Obama administration, the department will have to find $1 trillion to slice. The commandant admitted he does not know what will happen to the Marines if that doomsday scenario takes place. But, in classic fashion, Amos said that regardless of what happens on Capitol Hill the Marines will get the job done.

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