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Experts: Marine Corps looking strong ahead of QDR

Review unlikely to call for manpower cuts below 174,000

Jan. 26, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
v18 amphibious assault
Second Assault Amphibian Battalion trains with the ampibious assault ship Bataan. The Corps may be asked to to rethink the size of its amphibious units. (Lance Cpl. Cesar N. Contreras / Marine Corps)
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With the long-anticipated Quadrennial Defense Review likely to be published in February, defense experts say to expect few surprises in the document, but marked support for the Marine Corps’ equipment needs, its post-Afghanistan mission, and its stated minimum end-strength goal of 174,000 troops.

Last published in 2010, the congressionally mandated review of U.S. military strategy and priorities will carry added weight this year as the Defense Department seeks to chart a path forward through fiscal austerity caused by sequestration, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former QDR contributor. While the 2010 review didn’t adequately take into account the coming onslaught of budget cuts, Clark said the current fiscal realities, plus the budget compromise legislation passed at the end of 2013, would give this year’s QDR increased significance.

“I think the bipartisan budget resolution will provide enough stability for the budget that the QDR will be able to make some statements to the defense program that are likely to stick and will reflect some reductions mandated by [the 2011 Budget Control Act],” Clark said.

The most significant question for the Marine Corps has been the question of end strength: while top Marine brass has said a force of 186,800 is best for the Corps’ postwar mission. Last year’s Strategic Choices and Management Review, published at the direction of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, postulated a force of 150,000 to 175,00 instead. The good news for the Corps, experts say , is it probably won’t be asked to draw down below 174,000 in this review.

“I don’t think it will necessarily have a lower number. I think it will kind of identify an objective force that’s kind of around that [174,000] size because those are already reductions,” Clark said. “So they’ll want to stick to the glide path they’re on now to get down to 174,000. And the QDR will probably emphasize the fact that we continue to need to have the force in readiness, the force that’s forward-deployed.”

But Dakota L. Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and senior research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, cautioned that this assessment, which he agreed with, didn’t mean the Marine Corps would be safe from additional cuts.

“I don’t think [174K] is a floor,” he said. ‘I think it’s probably a new ceiling.”

Emerging priorities

The QDR will attempt to define the nation’s top defense priorities as U.S. combat troops depart Afghanistan by the end of the year. At a time when all the services are positioning themselves for peacetime missions, the Marines’ preparation and focus on their future mission sets will pay off, Wood said.

“I think the Marine Corps is going to come out best of all the services,” he said. “They have really made a good case for their role as a crisis response force ... The Marine Corps has positioned itself as this middle-weight response force, very mobile, very flexible. That has really resonated well with the combatant commanders.”

Congress has also endorsed the Marines’ growing identity as a crisis response force, calling — in the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya — for 1,000 additional Marine embassy security guards at American diplomatic outposts around the world.

Clark said all this gave the Corps an edge over bulkier service branches with less flexible mission sets.

“I think what might surprise people is that while we are talking about shrinking the Army pretty aggressively and talking about the Army’s missions changing pretty dramatically, the Marine Corps mission is going to be enforced in the QDR,” he said. “The emphasis on crisis response, having a ready force out there, all of those point to a need for that Marine Corps that’s going to be supported by the QDR to a degree.”

The review is expected to outline the nation’s military requirements in the Pacific, where all the services — including, most recently, the Army — have laid claim to a post-Afghanistan mission. While the Marine Corps has also worked hard to develop its identity in that theater with its “Pacific rebalancing” strategy, the QDR could identify needs that require the Corps to rethink the size of its amphibious units or the structure of its missions.

For example, the growth and development of anti-access, area-denial technologies may mean that large-scale amphibious assault capabilities should not remain a primary focus of the Corps. And the dispersed nature of the Pacific theater may dictate that the three-ship amphibious ready group model prized by the Navy and Marine Corps should be replaced with smaller or more modular amphibious units.

“I think the QDR will have to describe, ‘What is the Marine Corps needed for in the future?’” Clark said. “There’s probably going to be some discussion about the Navy and Marine Corps organizing constructs.”

Big-ticket items

Meanwhile, experts say the Corps has little to fear from the QDR in terms of development and acquisition. The document will likely continue to support development of the Marines’ F-35B aircraft and research on its new amphibious combat vehicle, which remains years away from production as the Corps continues to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of a high-speed model. Development of the Marine Personnel Carrier, the next-generation land vehicle, is likely to remain shelved for now.

Where the QDR may prove most useful is as a springboard for discussion of key questions at the heart of Marine Corps’ planning for the future.

Ahead of the review, Andrew Feickert, military ground services specialist for the Congressional Research Service, published an 18-page briefing document for Congress that provides an overview of today’s Marine Corps and raises questions, which will dovetail with the QDR, about the Corps’ role in the Pacific, its focus on crisis response as a primary mission, and its amphibious assault capability needs. The paper also asks questions the QDR likely won’t touch, about the Marines’ balance between active-duty and reserve forces, and if Marines should move more war-fighting capability to the reserves to make the best use of its resources.

“With the budget request in and the QDR coming out, I think it might stimulate Congress looking at a few areas,” Feickert said. “This is intended to provide them with a snapshot of the policy options out there.”

While the QDR will paint, in broad strokes, the Pentagon’s challenges for the next four years and strategies for meeting them, Congress will have the opportunity, in follow-on hearings, to hold deeper discussions about Marine Corps mission constraints, the balance of active and reserve components, and how the Corps can best use its amphibious capabilities.

“With budget constraints, it really serves the forcing function,” Feickert said. “You have to think about what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it.”

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