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The Corps revises its drawdown plan

Several new initiatives could sway your intention to stay - or go

Dec. 23, 2013 - 06:29PM   |  
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The Corps will expand voluntary separation incentives, bring in fewer recruits and make it tougher for some noncompetitive staff sergeants to remain in uniform as it pares the service to 174,000 Marines by 2017 — 8,100 fewer than originally planned.

For the most part, ramped-up drawdown measures consist of broader incentives to encourage thousands of Marines to leave voluntarily, although several hundred are likely to be forced out.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down, and budget pressures at home mounting, the Marine Corps was slated to shrink to 182,100 by the end of 2016. But even deeper cuts, forced on the Defense Department by sequestration, mean the Corps must now get significantly smaller, and the threat of even deeper personnel cuts persists. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, however, has told Congress and Pentagon leaders that dropping below 174,000 Marines would imperil the service’s ability to respond to unforeseen crises as the nation’s 9-1-1 force.

Because the ultimate goal remains a moving target, and individual drawdown measures must be calibrated from time to time, the possibility of additional revisions remains. But here are the significant updates in the drawdown road map as described by manpower officials Dec. 18 in an interview with Marine Corps Times.

Deeper cuts

The reduction in personnel will have to be deeper than envisioned just a year ago — thousands more than expected.

When Marine officials first unveiled their plan to cut the service to 174,000 Marines, the deadline to hit the target was extended one year, through the end of 2016. That would have allowed them to continue cutting about 5,000 Marines each year without relying on additional force-shaping measures — voluntary or involuntary.

In September, the end of fiscal 2013, the service’s end strength was about 195,600, approximately 2,000 more Marines than expected. The overage was the result of a technical administrative error in which retiring Marines — known as non-end-of-active service separations — were included in the list of EASing Marines.

As a result, their separations were counted twice and manpower planners accidentally gave Marine Corps Recruiting Command the go-ahead to recruit more people than needed, said Col. Bill Tosick, head of the Manpower Plans, Programs and Budget Branch at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

“Midyear, we should have given MCRC an accessions cut,” Tosick said.

Therefore, the service will have to cut its manpower numbers by about 7,000 in fiscal 2014, rather than 5,000 as originally planned.

The good news for those already in uniform is that the additional cuts should have no effect on their chances of remaining in uniform: The extra cuts will be accounted for by recruiting about 2,000 fewer people than planned in fiscal 2014, as opposed to pushing Marines already in uniform out the door.

By doing so, the Marine Corps will avoid relying on some of the harsh measures that other services have used, like the Navy’s Reduction in Force boards, which have broken thousands of contracts.

To facilitate deeper cuts across the services, Congress is working to increase caps on how many troops each service can cut per year. The Marine Corps will likely be authorized to reduce its ranks by up to 7,500 each year. However, after a 7,000-man reduction in 2014, Tosick said the service will be back on track with its original 174,000 drawdown plan, meaning the service will cut only about 5,000 Marines in fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Voluntary separations

The most sweeping changes to the revised drawdown plan involve the significant expansion of voluntary early out programs, most of which offer Marines cash to leave the service on their own terms. Two of the most popular programs offering buyouts are the Temporary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Pay.

TERA offers Marines who have served between 15 and 18 years a retirement pension, but at a reduced rate based on their total years of service. The program has been expanded for both staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants.

While all staff sergeants who are once passed over for promotion are eligible for TERA if they have served at least 15 years, only those in specific MOSs are eligible if they have not yet gone before a promotion board. The number of occupational specialties has been expanded from 19, when the fiscal 2014 version of the program was first announced in August, to 87 MOSs. The program was similarly expanded for gunnies, from just five MOSs in August, when the program was announced, to 84 MOSs.

TERA is a particularly good option for Marines who have gainful employment awaiting them outside the military, which will offset their reduced retirement pay, or those who are at risk of being pushed out of the service involuntarily, like lieutenant colonels and colonels who are eligible for consideration by Selective Early Retirement Boards.

VSP, which offers Marines who have served at least six years a one-time cash incentive to leave, based on their base pay and years of service, is similarly expanded. Like TERA, all once-passed staff sergeants were eligible when the program was announced in October. For those not yet considered for promotion, the number of eligible MOSs matches the TERA program, as it does for gunnery sergeants.

For every Marine who takes an early out, Tosick said, another Marine could potentially re-enlist or MCRC could ship another recruit to boot camp, even during competitive and austere times.

Another early out program, the Voluntary Enlisted Early Release Program, does not offer cash incentives, but it does allow enlisted Marines to leave the service up to a year early. It is primarily a cost-saving measure. Manpower officials have released details of the fiscal 2015 program early this year in an effort to encourage more Marines with a 2015 EAS date to separate in fiscal 2014. Such “cross-year” separations can have an impact on meeting annual manpower targets.

Under last year’s program, just 200 Marines with a fiscal 2014 EAS left in fiscal 2013. That was just one-fourth of the number of Marines who received a cross-year separation the year before.

“We weren’t happy with the number of cross-year separations last year, which is why we got the message out earlier,” Tosick said.

Details of the fiscal 2015 VEERP were announced via MARADMIN 662/13, signed Dec. 17. The incentive is available to all enlisted Marines, provided their commander and monitor endorse the request, taking into consideration manning needs of their unit and occupational specialty. Requests for separation more than 180 days early require an endorsement by a commanding general.

Eligibility exceptions are narrow. Marines in just eight in-demand jobs are barred from separating more than 90 days ahead of time: 0211 counterintelligence/human intelligence specialist; 0321 reconnaissance man; 0372 critical skills operator; 0689 cybersecurity technician; 2336 explosive ordnance disposal technician; 6314 unmanned aerial vehicle avionics technician; 7257 air traffic controller, and 7314 unmanned aerial vehicle internal operator.

It is a particularly useful program for those who would like to begin school during a particular semester, or have a job opportunity lined up. Also, while the Marines no longer receive base pay, they retain all other benefits, including GI Bill eligibility, as if they had completed their entire original contract, Tosick said.

Involuntary separations

The primary involuntary separation program that manpower planners have used during the drawdown — Selective Early Retirement Boards, which target lieutenant colonels and colonels — may be disbanded.

“We are going to look closely at whether we need one for [fiscal] 15,” Tosick said.

The boards have been used to help clear backlogs at the O-5 and O-6 ranks, which have resulted in promotion stagnation among officers and frustratingly long waits to pin on rank, even for those who have already been selected to the next highest grade.

Tosick said the actions being taken by lieutenant colonels and colonels at risk of going before a board will eliminate the overages at those ranks in fiscal 2014. Many have decided to take TERA and leave the service on their own timeline — helping them plan for post-service employment or retirement — rather than being pushed out at the service’s convenience. As a result, for the first time in years, every Marine selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel or colonel in fiscal 2014 will pin on rank before the start of fiscal 2015.

TERA is an especially good option for officers who may go before a SERB with a blemish on their record, often referred to as “jeopardy.” In the past, jeopardy might have been nonjudicial punishment or a conviction for driving while intoxicated.

But during the drawdown, what is considered jeopardy can expand to include minor blemishes like adverse fitreps and non-competitive Physical Fitness and Combat Fitness test scores.

That is especially the case with the commandant’s “Reawakening” initiative, which focuses on tighter standards — in garrison and deployed — as the Corps re-emphasizes adherence to standards after a decade of war, Tosick said.

Staff sergeants

Staff sergeants can no longer take for granted that they will be permitted to serve 20 years and earn a full retirement pension, as has been the case in the past.

If a new draft policy is approved for fiscal 2014, all staff sergeants with between 15 and 18 years of service who have been twice passed over for promotion will go before a retention board, where they could be selected for early retirement, Tosick said.

Manpower planners will instruct the boards to select a specific percentage of eligible Marines for separation. The exact percentage will be determined shortly before the boards, but will not exceed 30 percent of those considered, Tosick said.

In years past, all staff sergeants — even those who were noncompetitive and passed over for promotion multiple times — were permitted to remain in uniform through at least 20 years of service, barring any career-ending digressions, like those resulting in a court-martial.

The new plan would end that practice. While it has been briefed to Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, it must still be approved by Amos, the commandant, Tosick said.

Because the retention board will only consider twice-passed staff sergeants who have at least 15 years of service, all those who go before the board will be eligible for the Temporary Early Retirement Authority program.

As a result, Tosick said, it will likely meet the commandant’s definition of keeping faith with Marines during the drawdown, which includes providing a retirement opportunity to all majors and staff sergeants, as has been the Marine Corps tradition

Most staff sergeants are not currently at risk. If the boards were held now, only about 1,200 staff sergeants would fit the criteria for consideration, based on a recent snapshot of the staff sergeant ranks. Even if the board were instructed to separate 30 percent of the E-6s who came before it, just 360 staff sergeants would have to leave the service early.

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