ISAF commander Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford arrives March 12 on Capitol Hill for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Dunford will be in front of the committee again July 17 for a hearing on his nomination to become commandant of the Marine Corps. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of all NATO troops in Afghanistan, will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning for a hearing on his nomination to become commandant of the Marine Corps. After some 17 months in a multi-service command, he’ll now be called to return his focus to Marine-specific operations, budgeting, morale and discipline.
Five things to expect from his confirmation hearing:
1. Focus on Afghanistan
Dunford, 58, was widely viewed as a successful commander at one of the most complex and volatile posts during a period of massive transition, with hundreds of U.S. outposts closing across Afghanistan. He will likely receive a warm reception from the committee and thanks for his leadership in the region. That’s not to say he won’t field some queries about his perspective on the Afghan government’s stability, the ongoing Afghan runoff election, which has been plagued by accusations of fraud, and the posture of the Marine Corps as they draw down fully from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
Overall, however, there are likely to be few hardball questions: Dunford’s successor in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, sailed through his confirmation hearing last week, answering basic questions about strategy and the progress of the Afghan National Security Forces.
2. Budgeting and sequestration
The challenge managing a Marine Corps through the hardships of mandated sequestration budget cuts will likely factor prominently in Thursday’s discussion. The current commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, warned Tuesday at a Washington, D.C., think tank event that his successor would be forced to weather the brunt of the cuts after 2015. Amos reiterated that the Marine Corps prioritized operational readiness over stateside needs to balance the budget, and said those choices would haunt the service in coming sequester years.
“Once you get past about 2017 — remember, you are trading home-station readiness and procurement and modernization to maintain that level of readiness and that forward-deployed presence,” he said. “Somewhere around 2017-2018, the 36th commandant is going to have to take a pause and say, ‘I can’t continue to do business this way.’ ”
The hearing will likely focus on maintaining adequate stateside training for active-duty troops, the perennial question of cuts to benefits and services, and equipment modernization. Also at question is the Marine Corps’ target active-duty end strength of 175,000 troops, which Amos has called a minimum acceptable force. Analysts, however, suggest 175,000 may be a new ceiling for the Corps in the austere days to come.
3. F-35 and connectors
The Marine Corps has received attention over two different procurement problems: the ongoing work to field an amphibious combat vehicle and to find a workable amphibious connector to replace aging ship-to-shore variants; and the costly F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, which was recently grounded for the second time this year following an engine fire in the aircraft’s Air Force variant.
A recent white paper by two retired Marine officers, a major and a colonel, took issue with the Marines’ amphibious strategy, saying the new amphibious vehicle was too heavy and slow and suggesting the Marines should invest in a lighter vehicle that can be carried by aircraft. Dunford may be called to draw on his previous experience as assistant commandant to define the way forward on the ACV and to shed some light on how the current strategy will dovetail with future missions in the Pacific.
While the Marines have limited purview over the F-35 program, which also includes Air Force and Navy variants, Dunford may be asked about prospects for the Corps if the Joint Strike Fighter does not reach initial operational capability next year, as scheduled. With the AV-8B Harrier reaching the end of its service life, the service will have few options if anything derails the F-35B.
4. Women in service
In the wake of the Marine Corps’ announcement it will open infantry training to a larger population of female officers, Dunford will likely field questions about the strategy to comply with the Defense Department directive broadly opening ground combat roles to women by 2016.
It’s on this topic that Dunford may field the most pointed questions, said Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation. “Of the four primary military services, the Marine Corps is viewed as kind of the most reluctant [to accept women in combat] or aggressive and male dominated, that’s kind of its culture,” Wood said. “The other services have been much more able to incorporate women into many occupational fields.”
5. Nod to the future
It’s widely believed that Dunford could succeed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey when Dempsey retires next year. In light of that, Dunford may be called to discuss some broader-ranging Defense Department issues, from managing senior officers and targeting toxic leadership to the specters of sex assault and suicide in the ranks.