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The year ahead: Crucial issues for the Corps in 2014

Dec. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Transition will take many forms for the Marine Corps in 2014. Marine combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of the year — after more than a decade of war — returning the Corps to a predominantly peacetime posture for the first time since 2001.

Transition will take many forms for the Marine Corps in 2014. Marine combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of the year — after more than a decade of war — returning the Corps to a predominantly peacetime posture for the first time since 2001.

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Transition will take many forms for the Marine Corps in 2014. Marine combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of the year — after more than a decade of war — returning the Corps to a predominantly peacetime posture for the first time since 2001.

At home, the realities of budget cuts and a shrinking force will take hold in much the way Marine generals warned about in 2013: reductions to training, equipment maintenance, and installations and facilities upkeep; less time at home between deployments for troops; and fewer incentives for re-enlistment as the Corps slims its active-duty ranks to 174,000 Marines, or perhaps even fewer, by the start of fiscal 2017.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps will continue its aggressive training and development of embassy security and crisis response units to be at the ready for emergencies and unrest in kinetic corners of the world, and it will ramp up deployments to the Pacific.

And at the end of this year, Marines will welcome a new commandant, who will pick up the “reawakening” work begun by Gen. Jim Amos at the end of his tenure, setting the direction, tone and vision for a Corps facing more unknowns than it has at any point since the turn of the century.

Here’s a closer look at what’s tracking for 2014:

1. A new commandant. Amos, who became commandant of the Marine Corps in October 2010, will leave the post at the completion of his four-year term this fall. Insiders say it’s still early to know for sure who will succeed Amos, but the new commandant will almost certainly be selected from the Corps’ strong pool of three- and four-star officers.

The Marine Corps’ four-star generals include: Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan; Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command; and Gen. John Paxton, who serves as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. Historically, holding the post of ACMC is no guarantee of being tapped to move into the top spot, but Amos did take that route to the commandancy, serving under the 34th commandant, Gen. James Conway.

Also in play is a field of more than 15 three-star generals. Among the names generating some buzz are Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who recently took over as director for operations, plans and joint force development, J-7, with the Joint Staff. Both are infantry officers who have command experience at the MEF level.

Neither attribute is a prerequisite necessarily, but there’s a sense within the Pentagon that the next CMC will come from the ground community. Amos made history in 2010 when he became the first aviator to take the commandancy. It would be unusual if he were succeeded by another general officer from a non-combat arms field.

Later this year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will submit a recommendation to President Obama, who will interview the candidate and then submit the nomination to the Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing before voting to make the new assignment official.

If Amos’ timeline is any indication, Marines should expect an announcement in late June or early July.

Of note, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett may remain at his post for several months after Amos hands off the commandancy to his successor, a tradition that began in 2003 with Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Al McMichael. Barrett’s predecessor, Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, stayed on for an extra half-year after Conway retired to assist with Amos’ transition to his new post.

2. Budget cuts and you.
Last month, Congress approved a budget plan that spares the Defense Department from more than $30 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in 2014 and 2015, but the deal won’t undo all of the effects of what’s become known as sequestration. Consequently, this will be a persistent theme in the year ahead. And as Pentagon leadership adjusts to the long-term reality of sequestration, several personnel programs are in the cross hairs.

None is centered more than the Basic Allowance for Housing. Bean counters have their eyes on that $20 billion annual budget that helps about 1 million troops pay their monthly rent. It’s not part of “basic compensation,” but for many troops, BAH helps pay a big portion of the monthly bills.

Troops could see a return to the 1990s rules, when BAH was intended to cover only about 80 percent of average rental housing costs, with troops expected to cough up the rest out of pocket. Or the entire system might be simplified, scaled back and given a new name. One reason it’s a target is that the Defense Department may not need congressional approval to make such changes (unlike many other big-ticket personnel programs). Details likely will come in February when the Defense Department unveils its annual budget plans.

Meanwhile, expect cutbacks in the funding allocated for popular programs like tuition assistance. Many Marines requesting TA during the first quarter of this fiscal year were deferred because, without a federal budget, the Corps had only $3.5 million to spend on it in October, November and December. That money went quickly. It is unclear how much will be available during the second quarter, but it may be the same amount.

On base, facilities upkeep will be a low priority, and some family programs may be curtailed. Last September, Amos told lawmakers that some “very important but less critical programs, like morale and family support services, to include the availability of child care, will be reduced or eliminated to fund readiness.” Other potential targets for reduction, elimination or restructuring: auto skills shops, recreational swimming pools, outdoor recreation programs, Marine Corps Exchange operations and golf courses.

The Corps’ shift to the Pacific remains largely insulated from these deep budget cuts. Plans are on track to push Marines beyond Okinawa and into Guam and Australia in coming years. The Corps allocated $4.6 billion to cover future unit rotations, the relocation of two helicopter squadrons from the continental U.S. to Hawaii and training costs for Marines who will conduct operations in that part of the world.

Some training programs could take a hit, though. The use of role players, and plans to provide more jungle warfare training and cultural training are areas that could see cuts or remain stagnant.

3. The drawdown.
As the Corps continues to reduce the size its active-duty force, aiming for 174,000 by the end of 2016, manpower officials will adjust how they use the various force-shaping measures available to them.

This year, the Corps will ship about 2,000 fewer recruits to boot camp while continuing to rely on voluntary separation programs that coax Marines out of uniform with financial incentives. The goal is to cut end strength by about 7,000 come Oct. 1.

The Temporary Early Retirement Authority program and Voluntary Separation Pay program have been expanded, with eligibility for both growing from 19 military occupational specialties to 87 for staff sergeants, and from five MOSs to 84 for gunnies. Additionally, once-passed staff sergeants in any MOS are eligible. TERA offers a retirement at a reduced rate for those who have served 15 to 18 years while VSP offers a lump-sum buyout to those who have served six to 14 years.

Involuntary measures will continue to play a role, albeit a smaller one. Staff sergeants passed for promotion multiple times, who until now have been permitted to serve through 20 years, will now go before continuation boards if they have served 15 to 18 years. Only a few hundred at most could be pushed out of uniform, but all will be eligible for TERA.

The Selective Early Retirement Boards that target lieutenant colonels and colonels may be suspended after fiscal 2014 since many are now opting for TERA, which has cleared overmanning at those ranks.

4. Promotion forecast.
Manpower officials have been cautiously optimistic about promotion prospects, saying they will toughen overall as a result of the drawdown, but that force-shaping measures already in effect will prevent them from grinding to a halt. And in the most stagnated ranks and specialties, there will be more openings.

By carefully targeting early-out incentives such as TERA and VSP to those most overmanned ranks and MOSs, manpower officials are seeing specialties such as 0369 Infantry Unit Leader, which was closed for promotion to gunnery sergeant in 2012, open and continue to expand.

The hottest promotion prospects will be in those high-demand, low-density specialties within the cyber, intelligence, explosive ordnance disposal and special operations communities. Those who make it through the difficult training pipelines to enter those fields will enjoy quick promotions and cash incentives, meaning career-minded Marines should consider lateral moves into those jobs upon re-enlistment.

5. Re-up bonuses.
There will be less money available to pay re-enlistment bonuses when re-up season begins this summer. The reason: manpower planners are focusing on retaining critical personnel in high-demand, low-density specialties — such as intel — where rigors of the job or the lure of lucrative civilian employment make it difficult to stock qualified and experienced Marines.

The fiscal 2014 bonus budget is $79 million. That will shrink to $55 million for 2015, according to Col. Bill Tosick, head of the Manpower Plans, Programs and Budget Branch at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. And about 80 percent of that budget will target Marines in one of five jobs: 0211 Counterintelligence/human intelligence specialist, 0321 Reconnaissance man, 0372 Critical skills operator, 0689 Cyber security technician and 2336 Explosive ordnance disposal technician.

The current bonus budget is down from a high of $468 million in 2009 when the service was still growing to 202,000 to support the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Everybody is going to have to accept that has changed because I don’t have half-a-billion-dollar budget anymore,” Tosick said. “We will really have to scrutinize who we give them to and why.”

Out of Afghanistan. One way or another, 2014 will bookend the post-2001 period of U.S. military warfare in the Middle East. The nation’s longest war is slated to formally end next December when the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan expires.

And while many Pentagon officials have long insisted that the U.S. military will maintain an enduring presence there, the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai is raising serious questions about whether the U.S. commander in chief might just tell all of his troops to pack up and leave, just as they did from Iraq at the end of 2011.

That question will linger for many months into the new year. A betting sort probably would say the good money is on some number of U.S. troops remaining. But the numbers will be small, no more than 10,000. And the mission will be different: The 14-year operation known as Enduring Freedom will get a new name. And most people, in and outside the military, will stop calling it a war.

Despite the uncertainty, the Marine Corps is already preparing to withdraw by handing over more territory to the Afghan National Army. The transition could make the year ahead a tenuous one for Regional Command Southwest as reports begin trickling in of ANA commanders striking truces with militants in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal. Recently in Sangin, several checkpoints once manned by Marines were reportedly turned over to Taliban fighters.

It will be the job of Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd.) out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., to shutter the services’ forward operating bases and usher a smooth transition as he works to pull man and machine out of the country. He is slated to replace the current top Marine commander in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller, soon after the new year.

7. Pacific deployments.
As the Corps’ mission in Afghanistan winds down, its presence in the Pacific continues to grow. Today, there are three infantry battalions deployed to Japan, and more than 1,000 Marines are on tap to swing through Australia for six months, the largest group yet to rotate through Darwin as part of Washington’s renewed partnership with Canberra.

The Unit Deployment Program is nearly back to pre-9/11 numbers with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines; 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines; and 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, all forward-deployed in Okinawa. Additional aviation units also are rotating through air stations in Japan more routinely.

For six months beginning this spring, Australia will host a full battalion landing team. Comprising more than 1,100 personnel, Marine Rotational Force Darwin will include infantry troops from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, plus a combat logistics detachment, a CH-53E helicopter detachment and other enablers. Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, said Marines are expected to take part in a number of exercises during this deployment, including Alam Halfa in New Zealand and Southern Frontier and Golden Eagle in Australia.

This marks the second of three phases in the Corps’ plan to build out the size of these rotations. By 2016, officials intend to deploy an air-ground task force composed of 2,500 Marines.

The Marines forward deployed in the Pacific will have the opportunity to train with other Marines, other U.S. military branches and foreign forces, Robling said. Countries such as Russia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh are interested in improving their crisis response capabilities, and Robling said the Corps is eager to train with them.

8. Embassy security mission.
The Corps’ embassy security mission is expanding amid a congressional push to boost protection at diplomatic posts worldwide. Already, the Embassy Security Group in Quantico, Va., has churned out hundreds of new Marine Security Guards, standing up six new detachments throughout Africa and creating new specialized teams — they’re called Marine Security Augmentation Units — that can swoop in to reinforce facilities facing threats.

Nearly 300 additional students moved through the Embassy Security Group’s schoolhouse in 2013, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. That brings the number of MSGs up to 1,400, and the Marine Corps will continue to add hundreds more, he said.

The MSAU, which is made up of trained MSGs with infantry backgrounds, is now fully staffed with 122 members, Flanagan said. Its teams have already been sent out on 11 operational deployments, he said, including a mission to provide VIP security during Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Panama in November.

Additionally, the Marine Corps continues to deploy rank-and-file grunts to provide additional security at embassies on heightened alert, Flanagan said. About 100 Marines and sailors with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, deployed in September to reinforce an unidentified embassy within U.S. Central Command. Members of Delta Company, 1/1, went through training in October for an upcoming to deployment to the Middle East to provide embassy security. It’s not immediately clear if they’ll replace Bravo Company.

9. Crisis response units.
The Marine Corps will continue to develop land-based units designed to deal with regional crises, using the one stood up in Spain to deal with emergencies in Africa as a model for similar forces in the Middle East and the Americas.

Leaders at U.S. Central and Southern commands are looking to the Marine air-ground task force based at Morón Air Base in Spain as a blueprint for similar units in their theaters. While the timeline and make-up of additional crisis response forces are still being worked out, combatant commanders view their capabilities as strong backups when fewer Navy ships are sailing due to budget constraints, especially since humanitarian or security emergencies can happen anywhere.

“Although we’re not on edge for crisis response or embassy support ... like we’ve seen in west North Africa or the Middle East — it could happen here, too,” said Brig. Gen. David Coffman, head of Marine Corps Forces South.

Members of 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., have been tapped to replace the current unit, built around a reconnaissance battalion, that makes up the Corps’ Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response, based in Spain. They’ll form the headquarters element and will be responsible for coordinating responses to crises in Africa.

Members of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, will constitute the ground and logistics combat elements for the task force, while the air combat element will be Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162 (Reinforced). A detachment of KC-130s from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 will be part of that element.

10. More military partnerships.
This year, active-duty Marines will head several deployments that reservists led in the past, missions geared toward strengthening military partnerships across Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Members of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, will comprise two rotational units that aim to enhance military partnerships across Europe and Africa. The first group will deploy in January as Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Africa, which is based at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. The second group, deploying in March, will comprise the Black Sea Rotational Force, which is based in Romania.

And 20 Marines from 17 units will deploy in early 2014 to Central America as the region’s new security cooperation team, the first active-duty team to work for an extended amount of time in the area. The Marines graduated from the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group’s schoolhouse Dec. 13. They’ll be split into three smaller teams that will be placed in Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.

The Marines will assist local militaries combating drug trafficking and international organized crime. They’ll also team with other nations in the region for multinational training events including riverine exercises and jungle patrolling.

11. Women’s roles.
The Marine Corps has leaned hard into the Pentagon’s Women in Service Restriction Review, which calls for a comprehensive study of the roles women fill throughout the military with the goal of lifting all remaining exclusions unless there’s evidence to support keeping them closed.

To date, 13 female enlisted Marines have graduated from Infantry Training Battalion at School of Infantry East, but the Corps has yet to graduate any women from the more rigorous Infantry Officers Course. So far, 10 female officers have begun the program but none has made it to graduation.

With an eye to the nearing deadline — the Marine Corps has until Jan. 1, 2016, to fully integrate women into combat arms fields or to request exceptions — the service will continue to send female volunteers through their infantry courses. Four female officers are set to start the next iteration of IOC on Jan. 6, according to Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

Additionally, 33 enlisted women are training in four companies within ITB. The next company is set to graduate in early January, said Capt. Geraldine Carey, a spokeswoman for SOI-East.

It may be early to say whether the information gleaned to date has allowed the Marine Corps to develop an institutional perspective on women serving in the infantry, but it’s clear that there are stark differences between IOC and ITB, both in the female success rate and in the willingness of female volunteers to take on the challenge.

ITB, which has about a 2 percent attrition rate among male participants, according to battalion leaders, has graduated women from each of the two courses they were permitted to join. At IOC, on the other hand, where male officers drop out or fail to pass at rates of 20 percent to 25 percent, just getting female volunteers has been a challenge. The first course open to women, in October 2012, had two female participants and 107 men. The one set to start in January will have 100 male participants training with the four female volunteers.

The Marine Corps may also factor in the data officials are gathering related to injury rates for women in the infantry courses. To date, at least two women — one in ITB and one in IOC — have had to drop out or delay graduation due to stress fractures. Officials with Marine Corps Training and Education Command say they will be tracking female participants in infantry training for up to one year to determine possible long-term physical effects.

Pullups, the PFT and gender-neutral standards. Marine officials have postponed indefinitely a plan that would require women to perform pullups in order to pass their Physical Fitness Test, saying the service needs to further evaluate whether pullups are an appropriate metric for assessing upper-body strength in all Marines. At the same time, Marine Corps headquarters has said everyone should continue training with the assumption pullups will remain a standard measure of fitness.

Confused? You’re not alone. It would appear the Corps could circle back to this in the months ahead. But keep in mind, officials are developing gender-neutral job standards as part of the service’s broader research into what additional ground combat jobs could lift their gender restrictions. It remains to be seen precisely how that effort dovetails with plans to add pullups to the women’s PFT, but any decisions on one would almost certainly inform the other.

13. Uniform changes and personal gear.
The Marine Corps has made strides toward developing a common, unisex dress uniform, testing a modified version of the men’s blues jacket with high mandarin collar and broad white cover for all Marines at 8th and I in Washington, D.C., over the summer parade season. Though the test wrapped up this fall, the female Marines stationed at Marine Barracks Washington in parade staff or ceremonial roles have continued to wear the new uniforms, said barracks spokeswoman Capt. Diann Rosenfeld.

It remains to be seen whether the Marine Corps will adapt a unisex dress look across the service. The next meeting date for the uniform board has not yet been set, Flanagan said. So far, only one agenda item has been set, and it’s a minor one: adjusting the black pixels on the collars of the Marines’ digital camouflage uniforms to make it easier to read enlisted rank.

Beyond these initiatives, the year ahead will see continued development of clothing items better suited to hot, humid environments throughout the Asia-Pacific region. One priority is Marine Corps Systems Command’s development of a tropical-weight uniform. Preliminary testing was conducted this summer at the Jungle Warfare Training Center aboard Camp Gonsalves in Okinawa. Companies interested in the contract will work this year to develop and pitch prototypes that strike the balance between quick-drying and durable.

Also this year, deploying Marines will receive the Corps’ next-generation combat helmet, which is capable of stopping high-velocity rifle rounds at point-blank range. Initial fielding is already underway and will continue through 2014 as the service adds 77,000 new helmets to its inventory.

14. Big-ticket acquisition.
Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., is slated to receive its first F-35B Joint Strike Fighters in January when Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 relocates there from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The station will eventually be home to three operational squadrons and two training squadrons.

Also, the Marine Corps will continue to push for the development of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, although budget cuts have left a lot of uncertainty about the timeline for its development and procurement. A study solicited by the Marine Corps is underway and running through April to help determine what capabilities are necessary and possible. For now, plans call for the Corps to purchase 573 ACVs, with them entering service between fiscal 2020 and 2022.

15. ‘Reawakening’ steps.
Amos will continue his reawakening tour in early 2014, visiting Marine Corps Installations in Hawaii, Japan and elsewhere to brief noncomissioned officers on changes coming to garrison life as the Corps adapts to a peacetime routine. The tour and its message are a response to incidents of sexual assault, drunken driving and other evidence of slipping standards following a decade of war, Amos has said. Highlights of the “reawakening” include: increased barracks oversight by staff NCOs and officers; service uniforms and the elimination of television and video game distractions for Marines standing duty watches; the arming of duty standers; and the installation of cameras in barracks facilities.

Marine officials have divulged little about their timeline to install cameras in the barracks, saying their planning is still in the early stages. But a promotional campaign is well underway, including bright posters that are being hung in barracks facilities and, possibly, videos supporting the reawakening message, which may be released this year.

Marine Forces Reserve commander Lt. Gen. Richard Mills said reserve troops will also embrace the reawakening, with duty Marines posted to floors of hotels where reservists are staying during drill periods and essay contests to promote Marine leadership qualities.

Retirees back into Prime. Under a plan that the Pentagon has had in the works for several years but only recently unveiled in full, about 171,000 retirees and their family members were pushed out of Tricare Prime when the Defense Department decided to strictly enforce Prime Service Areas as within 40 miles of a current military medical facility or within 40 miles of a closed facility on a base that had shut down under base realignment and closure. For much of the past decade, Prime had a wide reach, with defense officials believing it was more economical. But the savings have not materialized.

So as of Oct. 1, those retirees and families had to switch to Tricare Standard, with its higher out-of-pocket costs. That sparked outrage within the retiree community and its advocates in Washington. And lawmakers swiftly listened: Under a provision of the recently passed 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the retirees and family members who lost Tricare Prime in October will have the chance to opt back in.

When and how they will be able to do this, however, remains to be seen. Pentagon officials have said they must follow procedural rules and study the issue, publish federal notices and solicit comment from the public before it can act.

In-state tuition. Lawmakers in the House and Senate worked on bills to push colleges and universities to automatically offer in-state tuition to all veterans, regardless of whether they are state residents, but they were unable to pass them into law in 2013. The effort will continue in 2014, and it could make a big difference in how much vets have to pay for school and where they can go.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of in-state tuition at public schools. But any extra costs associated with out-of-state tuition are not covered, which sometimes forces vets to pay the difference themselves. And that’s not a small amount: In the 2012-13 school year, in-state tuition averaged $8,655 while out-of-state tuition averaged $21,706, according to the College Board.

Bills in Congress aim to address the problem, which is common for service members often forced to relocate by Uncle Sam, by requiring public colleges and universities to either offer state residency waivers to veterans or lose all eligibility to accept the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This would likely mean that vets 100 percent eligible for the GI Bill could attend more schools with no out-of-pocket costs. Yet, it would also likely shrink the number of schools at which vets can use their Post-9/11 benefit.

Staff writers Gina Harkins, Karen Jowers, Patricia Kime, James K. Sanborn, Hope Hodge Seck and Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.

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