The U.S. Marine Corps, which already has shed thousands of service members because of postwar downsizing and budget tightening, is preparing to cut even more under mandated reductions known as the sequester, the commandant of the corps said Thursday.
The Marines will be reduced to 182,000 troops from a wartime high of about 202,000 because of budget cuts that began in 2011 with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said the service will have to be cut further, though he didn't know how much more, because of the $500 billion in sequester cuts. The Corps is currently at 194,000.
"I don't think there is any way my service is going to be allowed to [just]...go down to 182,000," Gen. Amos said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "Sequestration is going to drive us to a lower number."
As it continues to shrink, the Marines will work to preserve the most critical parts of the service, including quick-reaction forces, updated fighter planes, and a renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Gen. Amos said.
He said that while he wasn't looking forward to the choices sequestration and the budget cuts will force the Marine Corps to make, he didn't think the spending reductions would ultimately weaken the service. "It will cause us to focus on what is really, really important and what is core to the institution," he said. "I think it is good for us."
In five years, as the budget cuts continue, Gen. Amos said, the Marines will emerge "leaner, meaner" but still effective.
Retired Adm. Gary Roughead, the former chief of naval operations, has advocated deep cuts in both the Army and the Marine Corps. Adm. Roughead wrote in a policy paper that the Marines should shrink by an additional 10,000, to 172,000, and that the Army should slash its force by 200,000, from the current goal of 490,000.
While Adm. Roughead's advice drew skepticism from current and retired Army officers, Gen. Amos was more receptive.
"His thoughts were well founded. They were based on affordability," Gen. Amos said. "While I don't appreciate him shooting on my target, I do appreciate the logic he used."
David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general, said if the sequester remains law, all the military services will be forced to cut personnel. But he said the land forces could continue their assigned missions if they were cut to their pre-2001 levels of 175,000 for the Marines and 482,000 for the Army.
"I am not convinced either service needs to be bigger than they were before 9/11, there are efficiencies to be found and dollars to be saved," said Gen. Barno, who is now a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank generally supportive of the Obama administration.
But Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that previous attempts to cut ground forces have been reversed, and the Army and Marine Corps expanded.
"As important as technology is, you can't deal with the realities of warfare without people on the ground," Mr. Cordesman said. "I don't believe the Marine Corps is too large."
The Marine Corps is being forced to consider further personnel cuts in part because of the expense of modernizing equipment, in particular its aging amphibious assault vehicles and its fighter jets.
Gen. Amos has been the military's strongest advocate of the advanced F-35 stealth jet. The Marines are planning to buy a version of the fighter capable of short take-offs and vertical landings, which has been plagued by cost over-runs and development problems.
"I don't have a choice," Gen. Amos said. "Absolutely, die in a ditch, we need this airplane."