Marine Corps Could Shrink to Pay for Major Gear Upgrades

Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit stand in formation during the Talisman Saber 2017 opening ceremony aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, June 29, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Breanna L. Weisenberger)
Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit stand in formation during the Talisman Saber 2017 opening ceremony aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, June 29, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Breanna L. Weisenberger)

The Marine Corps could face another personnel drawdown as the next commandant looks for ways to pay for more modern equipment and training.

The Marine Corps must conduct a "deliberate redesign of the force to meet the needs of the future," Lt. Gen. David Berger told lawmakers this week. That, he warned, could include personnel cuts as he pushes for expensive equipment resets with limited resources.

"We will ... need to divest of our legacy equipment and legacy programs and also consider potential end strength reductions in order to invest in equipment modernization and necessary training upgrades," Berger said.

One of Berger's biggest challenges as commandant, he added, will be keeping readiness levels high as the service pays for equipment upgrades amid constrained resources.

The four-star select, who currently serves as head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, was responding to written questions from members of Congress ahead of his Tuesday confirmation hearing. USNI News was the first to report on Berger's possible plans for personnel cuts.

When asked if the Marine Corps was adequately sized, structured and resourced to respond to the types of near-peer threats laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, Berger was clear in his response: It's not.

Though he didn't specify what Marine communities could use additional personnel, the National Defense Strategy stresses the importance of combating cyber and information warfare threats. The Marine Corps' 2020 budget request also included more fund requests for infantry squad leaders, special operators and intelligence Marines.

The Marine Corps' modernization efforts will come with a hefty price tag. Berger said the service must rapidly expand its robotics and autonomous vehicles at the same time it's investing in big-ticket items like the F-35, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, amphibious combat vehicle and next-generation heavy-lift helicopters.

"Our goal will always be not merely to meet new and emerging threats, but to maintain a margin of overmatch over potential adversaries," Berger said.

The Marine Corps lost tens of thousands of leathernecks in recent years as it dropped down to about 182,100 personnel from a wartime high of 202,000. The service has since been authorized to expand up to about 186,000 Marines.

Some of those new positions fall in the cyber community as the result of the Marine Corps Future Force 2025 analysis, which set the service up to respond to future threats.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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