Gen. Joe Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, has been nominated to be the next commandant. If approved, he has big challenges ahead. (Staff Sgt. Dustin Payne/Air Force)
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If Gen. Joe Dunford is confirmed as the 36th commandant of the Marine Corps, he will take over a force already well on its way to executing a major strategic pivot from the large dusty bootprint of Iraq and Afghanistan to that of a smaller, faster, globally dispersed national crisis response force.
But to finish the job started by current commandant Gen. Jim Amos, Dunford will be forced to strike a not-so-delicate balance between an expanded post-Afghanistan operational tempo and the equipping and modernization needs of a force in motion. And he’ll have to do it within the confines of the sequestration budget cuts, which are expected to come back full force in fiscal 2016.
Dunford was nominated June 6 and analysts expect he will have a relatively straight-forward confirmation process.
One analyst close to the Marine Corps, who asked for anonymity, offered that Dunford is “not afraid to butt heads with civilian leaders, but picks fights only when he’s done his homework and has his facts.” Those are traits that have reportedly served him well in previous deployments inside the Beltway. Yet with less money and fewer troops at his disposal than budget projections call for, the next commandant’s room to maneuver could be limited.
Plans being formulated by service leadership call for an end strength of 182,000 Marines in the coming years, but under sequestration that number would fall to 174,000, a reduction that would return the force to pre-9/11 levels.
An argument can be made that the Corps was doing just fine with about 170,000 Marines at the turn of the century, but the decade since has fundamentally shifted the thinking in the Pentagon as to how to deploy and utilize its ground pounders, a shift that has had the full backing of the Obama administration.
“In the pre-9/11 force level you didn’t have Marine Special Operations Command, which takes 2,700 Marines, and you didn’t have the demand for these special-purpose MAGTFs,” or Marine air-ground task forces, said Dakota Wood, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a recent strategist at Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
While one SP-MAGTF is already deployed to Morón, Spain, and is aligned with U.S. Africa Command, the Marines have also requested similar units to align with U.S. Southern and Central commands.
“The demands are higher than pre-9/11,” Wood said, “so you’re going to try and do all that extra stuff with the pre-9/11 force numbers.”
The crisis response force in Spain deployed to South Sudan in December to help bring U.S. Embassy personnel out of Juba, the capital, when violent unrest swept the country. In the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the Pentagon has also asked for an additional 1,000 Marines to pull embassy security around the world.
Add to this the White House’s call for U.S. forces to act in an advise-and-assist role with allies in places as far flung as Guatemala, Senegal and Thailand — training these partners to handle their own festering security issues so the U.S. won’t have to later — and the new missions begin to pile up.
Another big issue for the next commandant will be to bring some stability — and find the money — to reset and modernize the Corps’ ground and amphibious vehicles.
First up is the continuing effort to replace the amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, which was scuttled in 2011. The Corps now says it will gradually modernize several hundred tracked amphibious assault vehicles, while buying several hundred wheeled amphibious combat vehicles by 2020. The Corps is also slated to begin buying about 4,500 joint light tactical vehicles starting in 2015.
Based on past interactions, Dunford’s approach to modernization and acquisitions may be “very conservative,” the defense analyst said, “and I think he’s going to have problems living with the decisions made in his absence about the ACV.”
But while Dunford is known as a war-fighting general and has spent years commanding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s hardly a stranger to the politics of Washington. He was Amos’ assistant commandant from 2010 to 2012 before heading to Afghanistan to command all NATO troops, and has served several joint assignments, including as the executive assistant to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief of the Joint Staff’s Global and Multilateral Affairs Division.
“It was really useful for Dunford to be assistant commandant, because that’s like being the chief operating officer,” Heritage’s Wood said. “You’re familiar with the business practices, how money is handled and programs are validated, and how to start a program and push that through and fund and manage it.”
Still, the modernization piece in an era of squeezed resources will be a challenge.
“This is no doubt a key issue for the next commandant, and one that General Dunford is very familiar with,” said Frank Hoffman, a senior research fellow at National Defense University.
“Both the Army and the Marine Corps need to make some progress on ground mobility needs, balancing an evolving threat against fixed resources,” Hoffman said. “I’d hope that General Dunford will recognize that the AAV is a legacy asset unworthy of continued investment capital, and focus his scarce fiscal resources on the ACV.”
Which vehicles the Marines use are critical, of course, but the equipment deployed Marines use to perform their missions can be fully realized only within an overall strategic framework.
In April, the Corps released a new strategy document dubbed Expeditionary Force 21, which lays out the particulars for how the service sees its role in the coming years. It reinforces the Corps’ traditional role as a globally responsive quick-reaction force while doubling down on the crisis-response element.
“While the Marine Corps may operate on and from the sea, in and from the air, and on the land, it is not optimized to dominate any domain,” the document said. “Rather, the Marine Corps is optimized to be expeditionary — a strategically mobile force that is light enough to get to the crisis quickly, yet able to accomplish the new mission or provide time and options prior to the arrival of additional forces.”
Wood said the document is “a clear articulation that the Marine Corps is not viewing dominance in major combat operations as its driving rationale. They have positioned themselves very well purely as a crisis-response force.”
The Marines under Amos have done much of the heavy lifting in setting the stage for the move from Iraq and Afghanistan to more globally dispersed, small-unit deployments. But with wartime funding accounts soon drying up, and sequestration squeezing budget lines across the board, that costly global posture could be difficult to maintain.
The cut from 182,000 Marines to 174,000 would have the practical effect of slashing about three infantry battalions, bringing the service to 22 battalions from the current 24. It would also throw the plan for a 1-2 rotational dwell model out the window. The Marines want to have one battalion deployed, one in reserve, and one training up at any given time, but with growing global commitments and fewer forces, Dunford and his staff would have to re-examine that as well.
If sequestration sticks, one of these many new missions will have to be curtailed. “Is it a SP-MAGTF, is it a Marine expeditionary unit rotation that doesn’t go, is it presence in Okinawa?” Wood asked.
The man who may have to answer that is in Kabul, helping draw down a very different mission.