Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the commander of Marine Forces Reserve, said the effects of sequestration will be felt at full severity in 2014. (Lance Cpl. Lauren Whitney / Marine Corps)
NEW ORLEANS — Deep budget cuts and belt-tightening became a reality in 2013, but all those changes will be felt most fully in 2014, said the commander of Marine Forces Reserve.
Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, who also commands Marine Forces North, told Marine Corps Times in an exclusiveinterview that the effects of long-term sequestration budget cuts would be felt at full severity in 2014, and the impact on the reserves would be intensified.
Fewer reservists may travel to large-scale training exercises, such as Bold Alligator off the Carolina coast; equipment might be sidelined because the reserves are unable to maintain it; and reserve unit commanders could be forced to cut out visits to their units, all on account of fiscal austerity. Mills said officials are already examining ways to restructure training and reexamine equipment use so they can make the best of reserve time and resources.
One big reason budget cuts will hit home this year the way they didn’t in 2013 is that carry-over contracts and previously allocated funding for services will be expiring, Mills said. In the reserves, where civilian contractors have provided day-to-day equipment maintenance, this leaves a critical gap.
“The reserve component is unique,” Mills said. “Marines come on active, go to their workstations, if you will, two days a month and two weeks in the summertime. They don’t have time to do that day-to-day, bottom-level maintenance that out in the active component you do.”
While active-duty troops have plenty of time to clean gear and rust-proof equipment in the course of their normal duties, time is a precious commodity for reservists.
“The money’s dried up, and I don’t have it. So I’ve got to go back to the pre-9/11 days and rely on the reserve Marines coming in and taking valuable training time to do maintenance,” Mills said.
“That hurts two ways: losing training time, and two, if you only have two days a month, you can’t keep up to [the necessary equipment maintenance], and it compounds itself.”
If the strain of upkeep gets to be too much, Mills said, he will have to pull some equipment out of the system.
“I’m not going to stand for a dip in readiness,” he said.
With limited time, fewer dollars to spend, and more to get done, Mills said he is exploring ways to streamline training requirements for reservists and cut costs at the same time.
Mills said he has asked Headquarters Marine Corps to review certain required annual training, such as voter education, sexual assault prevention and response, and annual rifle qualification, to see if the reserves can get a waiver on the requirements.
“We want to make sure whatever you’re requiring a reserve component to do two days a month is meaningful and is aimed toward mission accomplishment,” Mills said.
For tactical training, Mills said reserve officials were looking at innovative ways to use simulation — a cost-effective tool that also minimizes travel time and costs — to meet readiness standards.
Finally, he said, reserve officials were exploring a new initiative that might allow reservists to get some of the annual trainings done remotely, via their home computers, between drill periods.
“There are legal questions, we have to iron these things out,” Mills said. “But ... we’ll have to see if we can work them out to everybody’s satisfaction.”
Spending for travel will also receive heavier scrutiny this year, and that means a number of large scale multinational exercises may see a smaller Marine reserve contingent. Mills said he couldn’t say specifically if any training events would be crossed off the calendar altogether this year.
“I think when you look at reserve participation in Bold Alligator, which is an exercise coming up, and various exercises — we are also on the hook here for natural-disaster relief, there are numbers of tabletop exercises that involve our Marines — we’ll send people, but not as many. And maybe not as often,” Mills said. “So it’s going to have an impact on training, no question about it.”
When it comes to making strategic decisions with a limited budget for temporary active duty and travel assignments, Mills said reservists who were soon to be activated or scheduled for participation in an upcoming unit deployment program would take priority.
“The units who are furthest away from an active period will have to take some cuts,” he said.
Some problems to arise out of cost-cutting, such as reducing commanders’ ability to physically visit their units, don’t have clear workarounds or substitutes.
“Unlike Camp Lejeune where you can drive around the round and see every unit in the division within three miles on your lunchtime run (the reserve posts) are scattered — 160 different sites all around the continental United States,” Mills said. “For commanders to get around and kick boxes and do leadership at the lowest levels, you have to send them on orders, and that costs money.”
These are the most crucial things reserve commanders do, Mills said, and they’ll be doing less of them in 2014.
“The impact is that you don’t get a feel for your command, you don’t get that boilerplate leadership that you need to give, and you don’t get that mentorship capability, and you don’t get a real feel for the status of your command,” he said. “Because you’re just not there.”