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DOD Proposes Shrinking Ground Forces, Shunning Stability Ops

Posted: January 4, 2012 Twitter Follow on Twitter

The Pentagon's fiscal year 2013 budget request slashes Marine Corps and Army end strength in conjunction with a new military strategy that urges cutting back on stability operations, but even deeper cuts to both ground services are expected in the coming years, according to sources familiar with the plans.

The FY-13 budget request prepared in conjunction with the Obama administration's new military strategy would shrink the Marine Corps to 182,000, permitting the service to spread the reduction over four years, in part by relying on funds from the overseas contingency account, one service official said, noting the plan not only pares back force structure but also reduces the number of Marines in some units. The niche Marine Corps capability known as the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force would remain, as would the practice of having Marines guard U.S. embassies around the globe, the official said.

Meanwhile, the FY-13 budget request aims to cut Army end strength from a force of 570,000 today to roughly 480,000 to 490,000 within the five-year budget plan, said current and former military officials.

A government source familiar with the Defense Department's new strategy, which is intended to inform the Pentagon's investment decisions and global posture, said it contains strong language on curbing the sort of major stability operations that have been performed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey are scheduled to brief the strategy to reporters tomorrow afternoon.

Details of the strategy change were first reported by The New York Times.

But neither the Marine Corps nor the Army budget plans, which are slated for release in February, account for the fact that DOD faces the potential for nearly $600 billion in sequestration cuts because a congressional supercommittee failed to find mandated deficit savings. And even if lawmakers in the coming months successfully broker a debt deal to avoid sequestration, they could still include significant defense cuts below the Pentagon's requested FY-13 topline.

Some Pentagon officials anticipate the FY-14 budget process will ultimately be used to implement a new round of major defense cuts, but a former defense official said it is far too early to predict the outcome of that process, particularly given that the FY-13 budget has "zero chance" of being passed by Oct. 1. The FY-13 appropriations bills will only be seriously addressed in an unpredictable lame-duck session of Congress that will be tied up with tax-cut extensions and the threat of sequester, all following a dramatic election, the source added.

The Marine Corps' plan of record, based on its 2010 force-structure review, calls for reducing the force of 202,000 Marines to 186,800 after the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos said last November that DOD would shrink the Marine Corps "well below" the service's desired level of 186,800 troops, but the service would remain capable of handling its missions. Amos' assurances, however, were based on the premise that DOD somehow avoids sequestration.

"If sequester kicks in . . . I think it's going to be a significant impact to our national strategy," he said prior to the supercommittee's failure in November. Amos avoided citing specific figures. Ultimately, the Marine Corps might shrink to about 175,000, sources have predicted. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, meanwhile, has mentioned end-strength figures ranging from 520,000 to 420,000 in recent remarks at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, Inside the Army reported last month.

The government source said DOD's new strategy replaces the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review's call for protecting against "two capable nation-state aggressors" with a framework that aims to win one war while concurrently spoiling another aggressor's efforts to mount a challenge. The win-spoil approach is an attempt to be realistic about the capability of the military, which for years has not been truly sized to concurrently wage two separate wars against countries such as North Korea and Iran, a service official said.

Inside the Pentagon reported last September that Panetta's classified Aug. 29 Defense Planning Guidance -- a key starting point for DOD's strategy development -- advocated increased investment in military capabilities designed for high-end war among major powers, paving the way for more spending on Air Force and Navy capabilities associated with countering China.

The guidance also revisited the four priority objectives in the 2010 QDR report: prevail in today's wars; prevent and deter conflict; prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies; and preserve and enhance the all-volunteer force. Recent DOD reports to Capitol Hill have reiterated those goals -- known as "the four Ps" for short -- along with a fifth priority: improving business operations to support warfighters. But Panetta put more emphasis on power projection and cyber operations.

"Back in August, when Secretary Panetta signed the Defense Planning Guidance for 2013 to 2017, that paradigm of the four Ps was changed," said Army Col. Mark Elfendahl. "It was adapted -- and fairly significantly. And those four Ps turned into five . . . strategic challenges for the joint force." Elfendahl, chief of the Joint and Army Concepts Division at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, part of the service's Training and Doctrine Command, spoke last month at a seminar about the Army of 2020. He said the five challenges were prevailing in today's wars; projecting military power; conducting full-spectrum cyber operations; preparing for and conducting a wide range of other important missions; and persevering and enhancing the all-volunteer force. Panetta cited these issues last October in his first policy speech as defense secretary. -- Christopher J. Castelli

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