In an Aug. 12 speech, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates publicly directed the Marine Corps to conduct a detailed Force Structure Review “to determine what an ‘expeditionary-force-in-readiness’ should look like in the 21st century.” The U.S.Marine Corps‘ Force Structure Review Group, led by Brig. Gen. Daniel J. O’Donohue, convened in Quantico, Va., on Sept. 14 and expects to complete its review by Dec. 17.
With all things defense-related under fiscal scrutiny, the review group knows the stakes are high (witness the Joint Forces Command on the chopping block) but the Corps is officially not worried and recognizes that periodic reviews and assessments are normal and necessary to ensure that it remains the country’s premier expeditionary fighting force. Nevertheless, that this review has been called for now - out of cycle from the normal Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review period - is somewhat provocative. The Corps stands on the eve of a potential challenge to its very existence - actually, this is the 12th such challenge in the force’s history.
Marines of all ranks recognize the need to return to their service’s naval roots, and they understand the necessity of refining their expeditionary capabilities in order to remain “the most ready when the nation is the least ready.” Marines know conventional belligerents continue to be a future concern but realize nontraditional enemies and transnational, irregular threats remain on the immediate horizon.
Yet in this evolving era of ever-increasing budgetary restraint, the Marine Corps appears to many pundits as redundant - a “second land army” ripe for reduction - and to some, as a superfluous force primed for absorption into the other services.
This eagerness to trim - or eliminate - the Marine Corps stems from a fundamental collective misperception: National anticipation of the end of America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has fomented an almost giddy expectation that such withdrawal equates with an end to the current hostilities. The reality is that this conflict - the “long war” in many official narratives, even to this day - has the potential to span decades. Enemy propagandists repeatedly refer to their “hundred-year campaign” against us.
This longevity does not mean we can sustain carefree defense spending, nor should we refrain from frugality. However, Mr. Gates himself in August cautioned against “choosing to forget history” by turning inward, “unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important to our national security.” He noted that four times previously our nation has attempted to give itself a “peace dividend” - and four times we have had to “rebuild and rearm, at a huge cost in blood and treasure.”
There is no denying the high cost associated with maintaining a robust military work force; for Marines, personnel expenses make up approximately 57 percent of the Corps‘ budget. Thus, end-strength reduction would seem a foregone conclusion for the review group, and any Corps growth seems extremely unlikely - even though the recent Perry-Hadley analysis of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review envisioned a Corps of up to 243,000. Yet as people talk of inevitable reductions, and despite the fact that today’s Corps costs less than 7 percent of the base-line 2010 defense budget, it’s hard to not ponder how much blood and treasure might have been saved had our deployed forces had adequate numbers in the pre-surge Iraq years of 2004-07 and before the Corps grew from 176,000 to roughly 202,000.
Now, with Somalia’s al-Shabab and Yemen’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula already posing credible threats just for starters, Americans everywhere undeniably would benefit from a future Marine Corps equipped and staffed in sufficient strength to respond rapidly wherever and whenever required. Clear examples of the enduring vitality of - and necessity for - a strong expeditionary service include ongoing operations to support Pakistanis with humanitarian assistance in the wake of catastrophic flooding, as well as the recent capture of Somali pirates by force-reconnaissance Marines.
It’s also worth considering that during previous times of crisis, the Corps‘ end-strength was significantly higher: more than 475,000 in 1944, 249,000 in 1953 and 309,000 in 1969. Assuming the enemy will not raise the white flag anytime soon, downsizing now is somewhat akin to cutting much of the starting football team after the first game of the playoffs - but with life-and-death repercussions.
Marines will, of course, continue to “do more with less,” and the public shouldn’t expect any “bended knee” speeches on Capitol Hill in 2011. Nevertheless, let’s hope that as Mr. Gates, Congress and other senior leaders evaluate the forthcoming recommendations of the review group, the U.S.Marine Corps maintains enough trust, confidence and support to be able to continue to win our nation’s battles.
Lt. Col. Glen Butler is a U.S. Marine. These views are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Marine Corps.
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