Marines with Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, practice live-fire maneuvers aboard the ampibious assault ship Boxer on Oct. 16 in the Arabian Sea. Despite budget, manpower and force structure cuts, the Corps intends to preserve its seven MEUs. (Sgt. Jennifer Pirante / Marine Corps)
The Marine Corps’ representative for the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review said a pared-down Marine Corps force of 150,000 would require significant changes across the military services, but stopped short of saying such a cut would not happen.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Monday, Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie discussed what a force re-shaping to 174,000 would mean for the Marine Corps, and addressed speculation that the Corps could be required to undergo even deeper cuts.
In September, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos announced plans to move toward a “minimum acceptable” Marine force of 174,000. The figure reflects sequestration budget cuts and is a steep decrease from previous force-shaping projections. In 2011, the Marines announced they hoped to “right-size” the force after a decade of war from 202,000 to 186,800. That figure was later revised to 182,100 to accommodate fiscal constraints under the 2011 Budget Control Act.
But following a Strategic Choices and Management Review completed by the Pentagon in August, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Marine Corps end strength could fall anywhere between 150,000 and 175,000.
McKenzie confirmed that Marine officials had evaluated the possibility of a 150,000-strong Marine Corps as part of the SCMR, but he called it a “dangerously small force.”
“Based on our review of the existing requirements today and our best-case projection for 2017, 150K would be an unviable number for the Marines,” McKenzie said. “You would have to change a number of things, not only in the Marine Corps, but across the joint force to meet not only forward presence requirements but also warfighting requirements if you were to go to that level for a Marine Corps ... we’re heartened that as part of the SCMR process, that argument was heard.”
At 150,000, McKenzie said, the Marine Corps would have difficulty conducting training and would not be able to meet some of its treaty obligations.
At the 174,000 level, he said, the service is still able to preserve and resource many of priority programs.
The amphibious Marine expeditionary units, “sort of the coin of the realm today of forward presence, will remain essentially unchanged,” he said. “We have seven of those in our structure today; we will take seven forward. We will tinker with various command relationships with the various expeditionary brigades, with the MEUs as we go forward, but nothing that’s fundamental to the design.”
Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, which has been resourced for expansion even as other Marine Corps elements have absorbed cuts, will be frozen at its current level of growth, McKenzie said.
“We feel (MARSOC is) about right for the requirements we have and what we’re going to do,” McKenzie said.
Also protected, McKenzie said, will be training infrastructure and base support infrastructure, which are slated to remain at the levels planned for a force of 182,100.
“We are going to consciously emphasize readiness above all other characteristics of the force,” he said.
Where the Marines will weather cuts is in manpower: McKenzie said a force of 174,000 would entail 21 infantry battalions, down from 27 at 202,000 levels, as well as unspecified cuts to tanks and towed artillery. He also said the Corps would find significant savings in eliminating a three-star Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters — II MEF out of Camp Lejeune, which will be absorbed by Marine Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. — and that officials had already identified a 20-percent cut to military headquarters staffs mandated by Hagel earlier this year.
Despite ongoing planning to hit the 174,000 mark by the end of 2017, McKenzie said officials saw the new planned force levels as driven by budget, rather than strategy considerations.
“You need to keep that in the back of your mind as we go forward, that for us the optimum force is 186,800,” he said.