At a House Armed Services Committee hearing this week, U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos admitted that the Marines will be “very, very strained to be a one-MCO [major contingency operation] Marine Corps” under sequestration budget cuts.
MCOs refer to the ability to engage in a major war or conflict. The U.S. has maintained a strategy to be able to engage in two such MCOs simultaneously since the Cold War.
However, when the Obama Administration released its strategic guidance last year, that requirement was reduced to the ability to win one conflict while deterring or holding off another.
According to General Amos, even this strategy will prove difficult to implement under the impending defense budget cuts. While some specifics were classified, General Amos did detail that the service he leads will drop from 27 infantry battalions today to less than 19, resulting from insufficient resources. He explained that 19 was the minimum for the Marine Corps to engage in one major war.
The Marine Corps is already falling below some of its equipment requirements. Amphibious warfare ships are essential tools Marines use to embark on their core missions. The service has a stated requirement of 33 such vessels, but the fleet is currently below that. The Marines have staked the future of their aviation capabilities on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace their aging and failing Harrier jets, yet budget cuts have led to serious concerns over how quickly this program will develop and how many planes will be built. Combine this with projected reductions in personnel of roughly 20,000, and the remaining force will be under increasing pressure to perform its missions.
While the Marine Corps and other U.S. military forces contract, threats are expanding. The conflict in Syria is rapidly deteriorating, elucidating the threat of chemical weapons being used or falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. North Korea and Iran continue to progress toward becoming nuclear powers.
Rather than receding from these threats, the Marine Corps has actually begun to deploy Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) around the globe to mitigate them. One such MAGTF is now stationed at the U.S. base in Sigonella, Italy, where it can deploy rapidly to North Africa and the Middle East. Whether this decision is a result of permanently based Brigade Combat Teams pulling out of Europe or due to lessons learned from U.S. engagement in Libya is beside the point; if these forces are not properly supported, they will be less able to preserve peace and deter threats.
General Amos spoke quite frankly during his testimony. Frankly, more military officials should follow his lead. The U.S. fields the best trained, best equipped, and most professional military the world has ever seen. We are currently risking our ability to maintain that title. Continuing to cut corners is a strategy that will alarm our allies, embolden our adversaries, and welcome threats.