NEW ORLEANS - The national budget crisis could force the U.S. Marine Corps to start cutting the force as soon as next fall, and below the 186,800-troop end strength top officers have pushed to maintain after the war in Afghanistan ends.
Commandant Gen. Jim Amos said the options must be considered as the federal government ponders widespread cuts to the defense budget to help the U.S. reduce its ballooning deficit. For months, the commandant has advocated a gradual drawdown of about 15,000 Marines from the service's 202,000 active-duty end strength, but political and fiscal realities may require the Corps to cut deeper.
"There is pressure to go below the 186,800, I don't want to lie to you," Amos told Marine Corps Times recently during a two-day trip to Marine Corps Forces Reserve headquarters here and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. "We just don't know what that is going to look like yet and we won't know for months."
Budget pressures ratcheted up after President Barack Obama signed a deal Aug. 2 to reduce the U.S. government's estimated $1.5 trillion budget deficit. That deal, reached after weeks of haggling in Congress, likely means at least $350 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next decade, and potentially up to $1 trillion.
It's not clear how much of that burden the Corps will be forced to shoulder, but the numbers could prime the service for considerable change. It depends on how much of the Corps' $26 billion budget is slashed during the coming year, Amos said.
Earlier this year, recently retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates "blessed" the Corps' force-structure review recommendations, Amos said. He did so on the condition that force reductions not begin until after U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan are complete, likely in 2014.
That was before the deficit deal was reached, however. Amos could be pushed into a corner by budget decisions that will affect the entire military. Marine planners have developed a blueprint that lays out options for a force smaller than 186,800 Marines, and with the drawdown beginning as soon as fiscal 2013 - which begins in October 2012 - to meet fiscal requirements, Amos said.
The commandant declined to say how small the service could eventually be, but sources at Marine Corps headquarters said planners have discussed cuts that could reduce the service by at least 25,000 Marines. That would leave the Corps with fewer than 180,000 troops on active duty. There were about 172,000 Marines on active duty at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and about 175,000 when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.
What to expect
Where there could be cuts
Recommendations made last year by the Corps' Force Structure Review Group are expected to serve as the drawdown's framework. Outlined broadly in February, it calls for the estimated 15,000-troop reduction and elimination of several units. It's unclear how deeper cuts would be implemented if they are required.
The force-structure recommendations call for one regimental headquarters to be cut, dropping the total to seven. The Corps also will cut its active-duty infantry battalions from 27 to 24, its artillery batteries from nine to seven and its armor companies from 10 to eight, Marine officials said.
Three active and one reserve Marine wing support group headquarters also will be cut, with aviation logistics expertise kept within the Marine air wing staff. Command and control of the Marine wing support squadrons will instead fall under the Marine air group headquarters.
Additionally, Marine logistics groups will be trimmed, with key pieces aligned with Marine expeditionary units and infantry regiments. By being a part of those units, logistics Marines will train with the operational units instead of assigned to them shortly ahead of a deployment.
Marine officials in several commands also have disclosed expected troop reductions. For example, The Basic School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., is planning to see its staff of more than 800 Marines reduced by 27 captains and 103 enlisted billets.
The Corps also has started to build two new one-star Marine expeditionary brigade headquarters, with one falling under Marine Corps Forces Central Command, out of Tampa, Fla., and the other falling under Marine Corps Forces Africa Command, based in Germany.
The manpower will be available for the MEB headquarters as the Corps flattens the command staff at Marine Corps Installations East and West. The two-star MCI commands manage bases, stations and regional strategies for the Corps, and will be streamlined as part of force restructuring. Details on the MCI cuts have not been disclosed.
The Corps also recently adopted a significant change to its top-end service limits for sergeants, from 13 to 10 years. Each Marine will still be guaranteed at least one chance to go before a staff sergeant promotion board, even in the slowest promoting military occupational specialties. However, once a Marine is passed over twice or reaches 10 years of service without being promoted, he will be shown the door either at the end of his current contract or seven months after the release of promotion board results - whichever offers more time.
This change is partly a return to normal following rapid growth during the 202,000 push, Manpower officials said. The service limit for sergeants was 10 years from 1992 to 2001. However, senior leaders also said it is part of developing a new, more competitive environment that will make a drawdown less painful by moving top noncommissioned officers into zone for promotion faster than they otherwise would be, preventing stagnation.
"I would say it's a combination of all things," Barrett said. "I would say that's fair."