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Cutting to 174K or below: What happens if the Corps accelerates its drawdown

What happens if the drawdown accelerates

Oct. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
CLB-2 competes for the streets with CLR-25
Marines and sailors with Combat Logistics Battalion 2, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, march to the end of a battalion hike aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C. The Marine Corps is using force-shaping tools to shed excess personnel due to the drawdown and sequester. (Lance Cpl. Sullivan Laramie/Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps' personnel drawdown plan for the year ahead has taken shape, but a lingering threat of steeper cuts leaves open the possibility that these carefully laid efforts could be upended.

The Marine Corps' personnel drawdown plan for the year ahead has taken shape, but a lingering threat of steeper cuts leaves open the possibility that these carefully laid efforts could be upended.

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The Marine Corps’ personnel drawdown plan for the year ahead has taken shape, but a lingering threat of steeper cuts leaves open the possibility that these carefully laid efforts could be upended.

At present, the Corps is on pace to whittle its active-duty force to 174,000 Marines by the end of 2017, eliminating approximately 5,000 positions a year and relying heavily on voluntary, incentive-based measures to get there. But there’s a fat, ugly elephant in the room: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s bleak predication in August that the spending caps known as sequestration could drive Marine end strength as low as 150,000. And now, under the deal Congress struck Oct. 17 to end the 16-day government shutdown, it looks like sequestration is here to stay.

Marine officials acknowledge that manpower planners in Quantico, Va., are busy revising how they’ll employ the various force-shaping and cost-saving measures at their disposal and stand just weeks away from unveiling the drawdown’s next phase. How might that affect the drawdown plan for enlisted Marines and officers? Here’s an overview:

For enlisted Marines

Voluntary Separation Pay. Hundreds of staff noncommissioned officers are eligible for these lump-sum buyouts in fiscal 2014, which began Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, and more opportunities may open as the year wears on, Marine officials say.

For now, all staff sergeants are eligible for VSP if they’ve been passed over at least once for promotion to gunnery sergeant. That’s true regardless of their military occupational specialty. Among those not yet passed for promotion, only staff sergeants in 19 MOSs and gunnies in five are eligible, according to details of the program announced in early October.

Those payouts, calculated using a formula that accounts for rank and base pay, can top six figures.

Marines should keep an eye out for future Marine administrative messages related to the VSP program, officials have said. It could be expanded to include more specialties in the months to come.

For those already eligible, don’t deliberate too long. The deadline to apply for VSP is Nov. 29.

Temporary Early Retirement Authority. This carefully targeted program was announced in August and expired Oct. 18, but it could return in the coming weeks and months as manpower planners adjust fire on the drawdown. It was offered to the same ranks and MOSs being offered VSP and allowed Marines to leave with a prorated pension if they have between 15 and 20 years of service.

If TERA returns in fiscal 2014, Marines considering it should run some numbers before they pull the trigger.

Consider, for example, that a staff sergeant with 15 years of service would receive about $15,000 each year if he takes the TERA incentive to retire early — compared with about $24,000 per year if he stayed through 20 years. Over the remaining years of his life, that could easily surpass $100,000 in lost income. But for those with advanced education or solid career prospects outside the military, getting out to pursue private-sector employment could more than offset the loss in future pension.

Like other programs, TERA is subject to adjustments, and eligibility could expand or contract depending on the Corps’ needs and how many Marines go after other incentives.

Voluntary Enlisted Early Release Program. VEERP is an option for potentially thousands of Marines set to leave the Corps this fiscal year. As such, it doesn’t help to hit manpower targets, but it does save the service money by allowing enlisted Marines to go home up to 12 months ahead of schedule.

This may be an attractive offer for any enlisted Marine with an FY14 end of active service date who is ineligible for cash incentives, but there’s a strict approval process designed to prevent units from losing personnel who perform vital functions. If college is your next stop, or if you have a civilian job lined up, VEERP could be a win-win for you and the Corps.

VEERP was announced July 2. It expires Sept. 30, 2014, meaning Marines must agree to leave before the end of the fiscal year.

But a note of caution: Cutting short your time in uniform may count against requirements for GI Bill eligibility. Marines should consider that if they’re planning to seek early release.

Nuclear options. In the event the Marine Corps is forced to cut active-duty manpower below 174,000, there are involuntary separation measures on the shelf that could be employed. Chief among them:

■Ending the de facto guarantee of service through a 20-year retirement, which is extended to all enlisted personnel who reach the rank of staff sergeant.

■Convening an early retirement board for senior enlisted Marines.

■Using enlisted retention boards, like those used by the Navy last year to cut thousands of sailors before their contracts were up.

Marine officials announced in August that the Corps has terminated its 20-year promise for officers who make major, and they made clear then that a similar move could happen on the enlisted side. Any such change would depend on a confluence of factors, including how many Marines volunteer to leave the service. Certainly, any call to hastily shed personnel would be another.

There’s been speculation also about the potential use of early retirement boards. But while the Corps continues to use them on the officer side (see below), officials have resisted doing so for senior enlisted Marines. Instead, the focus has been on cutting off careers at the 30-year mark so advancement opportunity can improve.

Common practice was for some sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants to extend beyond 30 years to complete a final tour. The Corps did away with the policy, saying it would be the rare exception.

The most drastic measure still in reserve is an Enlisted Retention Board. If needed, an ERB would establish necessary personnel numbers for each MOS and discharge enough Marines — across the board — to hit those numbers. That’s akin to a pink slip. Marines would be sent home before the end of their enlistment.

For Marine officers

Voluntary Separation Pay. Here, manpower officials are targeting majors and captains selected for promotion in 29 career fields, up from 12 last year. Eligible officers can take home nearly $200,000 if they take the lump-sum buyout. A major with 12 years of service making $81,000 in base pay would cash out with $194,000 before taxes.

Details were first announced in March. There is no hard deadline to apply, but interested Marines should do so sooner rather than later in case the program is suspended. That said, deeper manpower cuts could force the Corps to expand such incentives.

Temporary Early Retirement Authority. Eligibility now extends to captains, majors and lieutenant colonels in 29 MOSs, compared with nine last year. Those with between 15 and 20 years of service can volunteer to leave early while retaining a reduced pension.

Once again, Marines should think carefully about this. A major with 16 years of service, for example, would receive about $30,250 per year after leaving the service, whereas he’d get about $41,000 annually for a full 20 years.

Details were announced in March. There is no hard deadline, but those who wait risk missing the opportunity. Again, though, if the Corps has to reduce its end strength further, it stands to reason the service will need more volunteers to leave.

Company Grade Officer Early Out Program. It’s simple: Leave active duty up to a year early and take a specific billet in the Reserve. The program is open to captains and first and second lieutenants. It helps the active-duty component meet drawdown goals and helps the Reserve ease officer shortages.

Those who make the jump can take advantage of the Direct Affiliation Program, which guarantees them a specific job in a specific unit long before leaving active duty. Officials say that can ease one’s transition, particularly as Marines make moving arrangements and seek civilian employment.

Selective Early Retirement Board. SERBs are an involuntary measure being used to cull the colonel and lieutenant colonel ranks. An estimated 87 colonels will be considered by the fiscal 2014 board, according to MARADMIN 529/13, signed Oct. 15. That’s way down from the 150 scrutinized last year.

By law, the board can retire up to 30 percent of the Marines it considers. If this board exercises its full authority, it could force out up to 26. Last year, the board selected 18 percent of those it considered, pushing out 27 colonels.

For lieutenant colonels, an estimated 82 will be considered this year, down from an estimated 202 last year. Numbers can dip before the board convenes if some officers volunteer to leave the service.

The Marine Corps has not disclosed the results of last year’s lieutenant colonel board. However, if it considered 202, a maximum of 60 would’ve faced the separation. This year’s board will be authorized to retire up to 24.

The board convenes in early December. Results are released once they’re approved by the secretary of the Navy. Marines then have six months to leave uniform.

Up-or-out limits. Majors twice passed over for promotion are no longer guaranteed a full 20-year career. This controversial move was announced in August because the rank remains bloated, hindering promotion prospects and timing for junior officers.

Noncompetitive majors now face an annual continuation board, which will send some officers home before retirement. All officers denied the opportunity to continue will be able to apply for TERA, which could cushion the financial blow.

The board convened immediately following the the fiscal 2015 Lieutenant Colonel and Major Promotion Selection Boards, the results of which are not finalized.

Officers in lower ranks will continue to face the same competition to stay in uniform.

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