When Gen. Joe Dunford becomes commandant of the Marine Corps Oct. 17, he'll inherit the last stages of a war and a host of uncertainties — about the Marine Corps' future missions and role in national defense, its capabilities amid downsizing and budget cuts, and its physical requirements for service as new combat jobs open to women.

Marines who have seen hard years of high operational tempo followed by a string of cutbacks and force-shaping measures will also be looking to Dunford for assurance and confidence about the mission ahead. It's a job that will call heavily on his prior experience advocating for the Corps on Capitol Hill as assistant commandant to Gen. Jim Amos, and it will likely bring to bear the entirety of his 37-year Marine Corps career, from regimental commander during the invasion of Iraq to deputy commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations.

Having relinquished command of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in late August, Dunford was unavailable for an interview for this story. But multiple military experts outlined the foremost challenges for the future commandant in the year ahead.

Too many missions?

The coming fiscal year will see the formation of two special purpose Marine air-ground task forces for crisis response, one in the Middle East and one in U.S. Southern Command, in addition to the already active SPMAGTF Crisis Response in Europe. The Corps also has 17 new Marine embassy security guard detachments active this year, with plans for a total of 35 detachments by FY 2016.

In the Pacific, a rebalancing effort of several years is nearly complete as battalion-sized rotational deployments to Australia reach full strength in 2016 and the Japan Unit Deployment Program continues. Short rotational deployments to the Philippines are also in the planning stages between U.S. and Filipino officials.

Add all that to plans for distributed, small-unit operations under the Expeditionary Force-21 concept, and it's a lot of lift for a shrinking Marine Corps — particularly in a time of peace.

Maybe too much, said Ben Connable, a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer and senior international policy analyst for the Rand Corporation.

"The Marine Corps can do anything anywhere, delivered from any platform," he said. "I think that the next commandant may be able to come out from underneath some of the budget discussions and focus on that ... de-emphasizing some of the ways and means and focusing on the core elements of the culture."

The developing EF-21 concept, he said, was a promising return to the Marines' strengths in distributed operations and maneuver warfare, with one concern: the strategy's heavy reliance on high-tech platforms like the MV-22 Osprey for insertion. Because technology in combat often fails, he said, over-reliance on any one platform is dangerous; it's better to focus on Marine Corps adaptability and elite training. While Connable said these concerns are visible to those developing the strategy, he also said it's an opportunity for Dunford to define and hone the concept.

"He'll be determining how he's going to carry on EF-21 ... my anticipation, knowing Gen. Dunford, is that he'll probably put a little bit more emphasis on people, and talking to Marines, I think that will be a positive," he said.

Speaking as assistant commandant during a 2011 congressional hearing on readiness, Dunford described a role for the Marine Corps that was specific and limited.

The Marine Corps, he said, "is not intended to be a second land army. Its primary mission is to train, organize, and equip landing forces for amphibious operations ... and provide a balanced ground-air task force capable of suppressing and containing international disturbances short of large scale war."

'Appetite suppressor'

Steven Bucci, a former Army special forces officer and Pentagon official who now directs The Heritage Foundation's center for foreign policy studies, said Dunford needed to continue a push for a return to the Marine Corps' "911 force" mission and identity, with an eye on preserving quality of life standards at home as well.

Amos has said a predicted drawdown to 174,000 troops by 2017 would force the Marine Corps to a deployment-to-dwell ratio of one-to-two or below.

"That's a heck of a lot even in a surge time to be able to maintain, but to do it in peace especially is hard," Bucci said. One of Dunford's priority tasks, he said, will be managing the expectations of policy makers who might want to use the force for a variety of new and emerging missions.

"He is going to be the appetite suppressor that the nation will need," Bucci said.

Dunford must also navigate the Corps through the remainder of the drawdown and sequestration cuts, which Marine officials have said will threaten core readiness and leaves the Marines unable to maintain all their equipment and their installations.

Recent months have witnessed cuts to special duty assignment bonus pay for Marines and force-shaping measures, including the results of a staff sergeant retention board which are forcing some seasoned Marines to retire with less than a year's notice. While troops will hold onto a narrow 1 percent pay raise next year, bonuses across the Marine Corps are shrinking rapidly.

Dunford will be forced to contend with all these issues, particularly if the Marines weather another sequestered year. In another congressional hearing during his tenure as ACMC, Dunford described his aversion to cutting troops' compensation packages, saying it would harm long-term recruiting and retention.

"What concerns me is that folks would think that if we get it wrong, well, we can just simply fix it in a year or two. That's not possible," Dunford said. "If we break the trust of our Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen today, it will be decades before we get it back."

Women in combat

Perhaps the most memorable decisions Dunford will make concern the entry of female Marines into combat operations specialties. By Jan. 2016, all the services must make recommendations to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with regards to specific jobs they believe should stay closed to female troops, backed by research and specific data.

The Marine Corps also recently punted on a policy change that would require female Marines to do pullups in their annual fitness tests, delaying the decision until the end of 2015 in order to incorporate data from the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force — a wide-ranging experiment designed to evaluate the capabilities of co-ed infantry units in order to, among other things, develop gender-neutral standards. That decision will also land on Dunford's desk.

Dunford saw the first female Marine volunteers begin infantry training for research during his time as assistant commandant, and was reticent on the topic during his confirmation hearing earlier this year.

"I think the approach the Marine Corps has taken now — a deliberate, measured, responsible approach — is exactly the one that I would take," he said. "And certainly, at the end of the day, you could be sure that the recommendations that I would make would be based on the impact to the combat effectiveness of the Marine Corps in order to meet the standards that you expect the Corps to meet."

With political pressure from Congress to open all combat jobs, multiple experts told Marine Corps Times it was unlikely that any infantry fields would stay closed after 2015.

"If it is merely a question of inconvenience or additional cost or complicated leadership challenges in terms of discipline, I don't think any of those reasons would serve as a sustainable basis to keep specialties closed," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general who now directs the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University. He added that only experience in combat would determine whether female infantry troops presented an additional operational risk.

If most or all fields open to women, Dunford will have the job of selling that significant policy change to a Marine Corps with a vocal contingent strongly opposed to the idea.

"One thing I really respect about the Marine Corps is, once a decision has been made, they move toward making it work," Dunlap said.

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