The commandant of the Marine Corps presented a Senate committee panel Tuesday morning with a grim picture: Marine barracks complexes with old lead pipes and puddles of raw sewage on the floor, and a disaffected generation of Marines looking for a way out.
That was what the Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford had entered as a junior officer in the postwar "hollow force" of the late 1970s, he said, but it could be a picture of the future as well if long-term sequestration budget cuts were allowed to continue.
The cuts, which amount to a $500 billion reduction in spending over a ten 10-year period for the entire Defense Department, are set to take full effect again in 2016 after a budget deal that offered a reprieve in 2014 and 2015 expires comes to an and. Dunford testified before at the Senate Armed Services Committee alongside service chiefs from the Air Force, Navy and Army about the grim effects the next round of sequestration would have. It was the first time Dunford testified before members of Congress since he became the new commandant in October.
"Where we saw the impact was in poor re-enlistments, discipline rates, poor maintenance of equipment," Dunford said of the "hollow force" of the post-Vietnam era. "Many of us only made the decision to stay once the Marine Corps started to turn around in the 1980s."
With a return to sequestration, which Dunford said would cut Marine Corps infrastructure sustainment funds to 70 percent of the recommended amount, Dunford said, the service Marines would not be able to properly maintain some about $1 billion worth of new barracks facilities and headquarters buildings that went up at installations over the last several years.
"That will mean there will be mold in barracks," he said. "Barracks will not be maintained to a point where they're suitable. Ranges won't be properly sustained."
Dunford maintained, as did his predecessor, Gen. James Amos, that deploying troops would get funding priority to ensure that they had all the equipment and training they required. But even with budget cuts limited to stateside units and programs, valuable services for warfighters could still take a hit.
The Marines Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment, which served combat-wounded and ill and injured troops, has been financed unded to date with Ooverseas Ccontingency Ooperations funding — a war budget that will dry up now that combat operations in Afghanistan have been formally ended.
"One of the challenges as we move forward and OCO goes away is that we will have to move [Wounded Warrior Regiment funding] into the base budget," Dunford said. "That will be one of the things that competes with the resources that we have fewer of."
Full sequestration could drive the Marine Corps' total force down to an end strength of 175,000, well short of the current planned end strength of 182,000. That could mean a 1:1 dwell time for deploying troops, so meaning Marines would spend as much time deployed as they would at home. Currently, he said, dwell time is closer to 1:2, with Marines getting 14 months at home for every seven deployed.
In the long-term, Dunford said, the tight dwell schedule is hard on troops' family livesfe.
"I'm particularly concerned about mid-grade enlisted Marines with that particular challenge," he said.
In Dunford's planning guidance for the Marine Corps, released last week, he noted that the Marine Corps was already working hard to retain this demographic. The Corps' number of noncommissioned officers and staff NCOs, he said, was already falling short of force structure requirements and leaving key leadership and experience gaps.
Bad as the individual effects of sequestration are, Dunford said he was more concerned about the cumulative effect of the potential cuts, and how that could impact the effect that it would have on the morale and mindset of the rank-and-file.
"All of those things that have given us that spirit, will and discipline," he said, "those are the things I'd be most concerned about losing."