Commandant Gen. Jim Amos testifies March 12 on the Navy-Marine Corps budget before the House Armed Services Committee. Amos said he, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, left, and Adm. Jon Greenert, chief of naval operations, center, would like to have a ship in international waters to serve as a forward-staging base for west Africa. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
If the Marine Corps is forced to draw down to 175,000 Marines, the “moderate risk” force that’s left will be built around fewer infantry battalions with impaired readiness, the service’s top general told lawmakers Wednesday. In the event of a major theater war, new privates first class might have to head straight to the battlefield.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on the proposed Navy-Marine Corps fiscal 2015 budget, Commandant Gen. James Amos presented a bleak outlook of where the Corps will be headed if forced to shed additional Marines. Joined by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert, Amos detailed how continued across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, would force the Marine Corps from 182,100 Marines down to 175,000 — just 20 infantry battalions.
“What this means is your Marine Corps would be all in,” Amos told lawmakers.
If the U.S. were to become involved in a large-scale operation, combat Marines wouldn’t come home until it was over, he said, likening it to World War II and the Korean War.
Fewer personnel would also mean that newly minted Marines might ship off to battle directly after boot camp, he added. All of which describes a “moderate risk force,” Amos said.
Even now, Marines will remain on the two-to-one dwell-to-deployment cycle they’ve experienced during more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means for every year they’re at home, they’ll spend six months away.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot, , expressed concern about the toll that will take on Marines over the long term.
“This is a pretty intense pace that you’re going to be putting people on,” she told the commandant. “... It’s certainly a heavy load that we’re asking your Marines to shoulder going on into the future.”
Duckworth asked Amos how long that dwell cycle could be sustained.
The Marine Corps is a young force, Amos responded. Almost 20,000 Marines are still teen-agers. While it could be tough on captains, master sergeants and gunnery sergeants, younger Marines don’t seem to mind the pace, he said.
“When I travel around, the sergeant major and I, we visit Marines in Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re deployed, and the only question we get is not, ‘Hey sir, I’m too tired, this is too hard.’ I get the questions, ‘Sir, when am I gonna get to deploy again? Now that we’re coming out of Afghanistan, where are we going to go next?’ ”
Even as the Corps returns to its amphibious roots, the high operational tempo does not mean that Marines will be forward-deployed aboard ships, Amos said. He cited the successes of the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response, based in Spain, in responding to crises in Africa.
“Ideally, what Admiral Greenert and I would like to do is put those rascals on ships — and when we get ships, we will,” Amos said. “But for the time being, we’re gonna put them in the areas of operation for the combatant commanders so that they can be relevant.”
Land-based units, while useful, are not ideal, he added. It can be difficult to find a country that will allow Marines to base there. That has been the case on the west coast of Africa, he said, which is why they’d like to have a ship that can serve as a forward-staging base in international waters instead.
“Admiral Greenert, the secretary and I are working on that right now,” Amos said.
In just a few years, the serious effects of budget cuts will be seen in the decreased readiness of deploying units. Amos told lawmakers that the Marine Corps will be “less ready in about 2017 and beyond.”
Even so, he assured the committee that Marines will continue to respond to whatever they’re called to do.
“We will not do less with less,” he said. “We’ll do the same with less.”