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USMC brass detail potential budgetary fallout

Feb. 12, 2013 - 01:12PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 12, 2013 - 01:12PM  |  
Sequestration could force the Marine Corps to cut even more Marines than planned under the drawdown, according to the three-star who serves as the commandant's top adviser on financial matters.
Sequestration could force the Marine Corps to cut even more Marines than planned under the drawdown, according to the three-star who serves as the commandant's top adviser on financial matters. (Cpl. Chad J. Pulliam / Marine Corps)
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Severe military-wide budget cuts set to take effect March 1 will force the Marine Corps to cancel training, ground aircraft, delay equipment maintenance and modernization, curtail family programs and consider shedding additional personnel, senior leaders said Tuesday.

In a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Marine Corps' commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, outlined a variety of grave possibilities unless Congress acts to avert these automatic spending cuts — a measure known as sequestration — and lift restrictions on current funding, which coupled with the increased need for Marines around the world has left the service with a projected $945 million shortfall for the current fiscal year, he said.

With readiness at a "tipping point," Amos said, strategic impacts will be "immediate and global."

"By the end of calendar year 2013, less than half of our ground combat units will be trained to the minimum readiness level required for deployment," Amos' statement reads. "The impact on our aviation units is not any better. Only two-thirds of our aviation combat units will be at readiness levels required for overseas deployment; decreased readiness will compound in 2014 and beyond."

It's the first time Marine officials have publicly detailed how the service is bracing for sequestration, which would impose about $500 billion in spending cuts across the Defense Department over the next decade. Sequestration was put into play by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which established mechanisms for automatically cutting federal programs by $1 trillion unless Congress acts to rein in deficit spending.

On top of the March 1 sequestration deadline, Congress has not passed a 2013 defense appropriations bill, so defense spending is frozen at 2012 levels as part of a continuing resolution. Even extending the continuing resolution throughout all of 2013, Amos said, would challenge the Corps' ability to pay for training, maintenance and base operations.

Perhaps most-unsettling for rank-and-file Marines is the prospect of more personnel cuts. But that could be necessary if sequestration comes to pass, said Lt. Gen. John Wissler, who oversees the service's budget as deputy commandant for programs and resources.

Today, the Marine Corps is in the midst of reducing its authorized active-duty end-strength from 202,100 to 182,100, shedding about 5,000 positions a year through fiscal 2016. Officials cannot deviate from that plan this year, as President Obama exempted military personnel from any sequestration-driven cuts that may be required in 2013, but after that, "everything's going to be on the table," Wissler told Marine Corps Times after a speaking engagement Tuesday morning in Arlington, Va.

It's not immediately clear to what extent sequestration could drive future personnel reductions. 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.

Pacific mission push at risk

Of immediate concern is the risk sequestration poses for the commandant's ability to train and equip Marines for crisis-response missions. Cuts affecting ammunition, fuel and equipment will interfere with training throughout the Marine Corps, his statement to Congress reads, and within the next six months, most ground troops won't have had the minimum training required for deployments.

Moreover, "we will have to reduce our Theater Security Cooperation and exercise support by 30 percent in the Asia Pacific region, opening the door to those who would gladly take our place in global leadership," Amos' statement reads. "… The void left by our ‘actual absence,' where we may be needed most, will be filled by somebody — some other nation or entity."

Aviation units would be hit hard, Wissler said. Entire F-18 fighter squadrons could be shut down because with fewer aircraft available there will be less flight time for pilots, he said. And if they don't train to fly, they become a liability.

The Marine Corps' plan to base its MV-22 Ospreys and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters would be put at risk, Amos' statement reads. And delaying major procurement programs — including the F-35 and the Corps' next-generation amphibious and light-tactical vehicles — would cause costs to soar, it says.

Base services would be yet another issue. Marines, Wissler said, could be tapped to cut grass and landscape. Across the fleet, such services are handled currently by local businesses or civilian employees, who face the threat of furloughs if sequestration hits.

"Ninety-five percent of our civilian Marines are not green … weenies like me sitting in the Pentagon reading a spreadsheet," Wissler said. "They're turning wrenches at our [maintenance] depots … providing critical programs to our families and wounded warriors … they're running our [training] ranges."

In his written remarks to Congress, Amos called the potential effects associated with furloughing civilian employees "unthinkable."

Marines might not see many changes in the first six months of sequestration, Wissler said. But beyond the six-month mark, the drastic revenue cuts will start to affect Marines' day-to-day lives — and that's when readiness will start to decline, he said.

"You could very well see less than half of the Marine Corps' ground combat forces be at significant readiness posture to deploy around the world and meet requirements," Wissler said. "And you could see 40 percent of our aviation unable to respond to fighting requirements."

After a year, family programs and wounded warrior care could begin to suffer, he added.

"Marines who have sacrificed — Marines and families that have given their heart, soul and, in many instances, body parts — to do all that we have asked them to do with the simple, simple thought that we would take care of them … you will see it impact the Marines and families who have sacrificed so much."

Continued cuts will impact retention, so the knowledge and skills gained during the past decade plus of war could be lost, Wissler said.

"Our ability to keep them around … the most combat-ready, combat-tested noncommissioned officers and staff noncommissioned officers … we will have a very difficult time retaining that war-fighting capability," he said.

Wissler said he believes sequestration is imminent; he doesn't see how Congress can prevent it from taking effect by the March 1 deadline. And those across-the-board spending cuts, he said, will restrict Marine Corps programs well into the future.

"Those restrictions, like a pebble in a pond, will ripple for years as we try to fix what are some forced bad decisions on our programs," he said.

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