May 21, 2012
ACMC paints bleak picture of Corps should further cuts be ordered
By Andrew Tilghman and Andrew deGrandpre
Another 18,000 Marines could be cut, forcing the Corps to cancel contracts and push people out of the service, if Congress fails to change the current law that will impose huge defense spending reductions in January, Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford told lawmakers May 10.
Additionally, “we would not have adequate capabilities or capacities to meet a single major contingency operation,” Dunford said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel.
“We would absolutely not be able to keep faith with our people. … We’d be breaking contracts and sending people on their way who believe they had a commitment from us to [stay] on active duty.”
Dunford’s comments mark the starkest, most detailed forecast to date of the potential impact on Marines, their families and the institution of the so-called sequester law, which Congress passed in a bipartisan vote last August. The law will begin imposing sweeping cuts to the budgets of all government departments and agencies, including the Pentagon, on Jan. 1 unless Congress agrees on an alternative plan to lower federal spending before then.
Sequestration cuts are projected to be about 10 percent across the board for all agencies. The Pentagon’s share would come on top of the $487 billion in reduced defense spending over 10 years that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined in February, which set the Corps on its present course to reduce authorized active-duty end strength by 20,000.
Dunford was joined on Capitol Hill by the vice chiefs of the Army, Air Force and Navy. They also painted bleak pictures of the hit sequestration would impose on their services. The Army could be forced to lose another 100,000 soldiers, while the Navy could lose 50 ships and the Air Force would be rendered unable to modernize its aging aircraft fleet, top officials said.
Pentagon officials have insisted for months they are not planning for sequestration, hoping instead that lawmakers will change the law before the trigger date in January. But formal planning may begin this summer if Congress fails to act, Panetta has said.
During March testimony on the Hill, the top Marine, Gen. Jim Amos, indicated further tampering with the Corps’ force structure would “stunt, if not completely negate,” his ability to reset the service from a decade of combat, jeopardizing resources needed to train, arm and fuel the force at home and abroad. It would be “a recipe for a hollow force,” he said.
Dunford’s comments raise the ante — significantly. His assessment suggests there is mounting concern among top brass that lawmakers are not moving swiftly enough to head off what is widely viewed as the biggest threat to maintaining a potent, capable military in an era of constrained government spending.
“We need a shockwave to be felt in Congress,” a Marine official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Marine Corps Times after the hearing. “And Marines need to know we’re doing everything we can to prevent greater impact on them.”
18,000 more people cut
Presently, the active-duty Marine Corps stands at about 196,000, although its authorized size is 202,100 through the end of this fiscal year. But once Oct. 1 rolls around, the drawdown will start in earnest.
The service only recently announced plans for reducing active-duty end strength to 182,100, which is to be finalized by the end of 2016. Using voluntary and involuntary separation measures, officials expect to shed about 5,000 Marines a year. Some will receive financial incentives to leave.
The current drawdown plan is carefully calibrated to ease the impact on individual Marines. Starting next year, the Defense Department’s base budget will fund only 182,000, but the Corps plans to use supplemental war funding, known as Overseas Contingency Operations funding, to keep thousands of Marines on the payroll as it stair-steps down to that level over four years.
Dunford suggested the Corps could see a precipitous drop in force levels — potentially lopping off 30,000 Marines in a single year — if the sequestration law severely curtailed war funding.
As part of its drawdown plan, the Corps built in what it branded “final protective fires,” three measures that could be used should the service be ordered to cut manpower deeper and faster, the proverbial worst-case scenario.
Dunford said in his testimony that sequestration would force an additional cut of about 18,000, down to a total of 168,000. From a starting point of 182,000, however, an additional reduction of 18,000 would leave 164,000. Either way, that would be the smallest active-duty force since 1950.
To cut so deeply would require the Corps to terminate contracts, Dunford said, a move that senior leaders have vowed to resist in the interest of “keeping faith” with Marines and their families who have endured multiple combat deployments over the past decade.
“These are the very people … who are in Afghanistan today forward-deployed, forward-engaged, in harm’s way,” Dunford said. “And their reward when they come home will simply be to dismiss [them] and shake their hand. And I think that would be a mistake.”
Dunford declined a request to speak with Marine Corps Times about his remarks, but through a spokesman at the Pentagon issued the following statement: “Per the SecDef guidance, we are not doing any sequestration planning. As I said in my testimony, we can meet our current commitments with the proposed budget. Sequestration will require a re-look at the strategy.”
Any re-look would be overseen by officials at Marine Corps Combat Development Command and Manpower and Reserve Affairs, both based in Quantico, Va. MCCDC led efforts to accommodate manpower reductions by creating a multiyear plan for restructuring the force and rebalancing its capabilities. Echoing Dunford’s statement, MCCDC has received no direction to draft plans for a force smaller than 182,100, said Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for the command.
Should further cuts be necessary, they would be informed by another capabilitybased assessment, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. When the Corps devises its manning needs, officials “build to a requirement, not an end-strength number,” she said.
“If there are further cuts,” Haney said, “we have asked for, and will need, another year for every 5,000 personnel cuts in order to keep faith with Marines.” So, should sequestration indeed force the Corps to cut another 18,000 Marines, it could be 2020 before all those cuts are made. Of course, Congress would have final say in determining how quickly any budget cuts would take effect, thus dictating the speed of any further drawdown.
The Budget Control Act allows — but does not require — the White House to shield military personnel programs from sequestration. But if personnel programs were exempted, the Pentagon would be forced to cut deeper into other programs.
Also at stake
For the Army, “back-of-the-envelope calculations” would probably mean reductions of another 100,000 soldiers on top of cuts that are already planned, said Gen. Lloyd Austin, the service’s vice chief of staff. About half of the sequestration cuts would come in the active-duty force, and half in the National Guard and Army Reserve, he said. Current plans call for the active-duty Army to shrink from about 560,000 to about 490,000 during the next five years. Austin’s comments suggest the sequester law could push that final active-duty end strength down to about 440,000.
For the Navy, the budget cuts imposed under sequestration could force today’s fleet of about 285 ships to drop to about 235, Navy officials said. That would force the Pentagon to reconsider basic elements of national-security strategy because the Navy would not meet current expectations.
The Corps would feel that, too. Much of its plan for future force posture calls for returning Marines to Navy ships, stepping up maritime missions in the Pacific.
“It would … cause us to go back and re-look at the strategy because the force that comes out of sequestration is not the force that can support the current strategy that we’re operating under,” Vice Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, told senators.
For the Air Force, sequestration cuts would force hard decisions about the size of the air fleet.
“The Air Force is the oldest it’s ever been in terms of its iron,” said Gen. Philip Breedlove, Air Force vice chief of staff. “We desperately need to recapitalize our flying fleet. If we see sequestration, we will not be able to maintain capacity and do recapitalization of those fleets. So we’ll have to make very tough decisions to either come way down in the number of units or to give up the modernization of those units.”
Many experts say a breakthrough agreement is unlikely before the presidential election in November. That could put off the issue until a post-election “lame duck” session of Congress.
In his testimony, Dunford recalled being a junior officer during the post-Vietnam era, in the aftermath of massive downsizing that left the Corps a disjointed mess. That can’t be allowed again, he said.
“I know what a hollow force is because I was a platoon commander in a hollow force,” he said. “And I will tell you, the number-one thing that keeps me awake at night is being a part of anything that would cause the United States Marine Corps to look like it did in the 1970s as opposed to what it looks like in 2012.”
Staff writer Gina Cavallaro contributed to this report.