The Marine Corps is going back for its future.
“We’re going back to the Marine Corps we had before 9/11,” said Maj. Gen. Ray Fox, commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force. “The MEF will look very similar to what it did …before we started the buildup for Iraq and Afghanistan.”
During the late 1990s, the Corps had about 175,000 Marines, a number not much higher than the planned total force of 174,000.
Because of federal budget constraints and sequestration, the Marine Corps will relocate more than 90 personnel from the II MEF command element from Camp Lejeune to Norfolk, Va. by 2017. In line with this plan, the Corps will slim its forces to the desired number by the same year — an annual reduction of about 5,000 Marines. That reduction will affect the 53,000 Marines in II MEF. By restructuring the command element of II MEF, the Corps will satisfy guidance by the Secretary of Defense to cut headquarters elements by 20 percent, Fox said.
The original target number identified by the Marine Corps for the draw down was 186,800, which changed when the budget started to “come apart,” Fox said. It was then determined by the Budget Control Act that the number needed to decrease more. The Marine Corps then proposed a 182,000 personnel end strength by 2016. Once sequestration came into effect and a study was conducted for the commandant of the Marine Corps, the number was then rolled down to 174,000. The reduction in forces to 174,000 will result in more frequent deployments and less time in the United States for the Marines, Fox said. Once the Corps reaches its goal of 174,000, Marines may see only two months home for every one month spent deployed, he said.
“We knew that 202,000 Marines was not a supportable number in the long run,” Fox said. “The commandant would tell you that (186,800 Marines) is the optimal force we need to support our nation ... but due to fiscal constraints, we cannot have a Corps that size.”
The end strength of the Corps, according to Fox, will see bigger cuts in deploying units of the II MEF compared to the base facilities and structures. Part of this consolidation will occur when the II MEF command element combines with Marine Forces Command and falls under a three-star general as opposed to the current command, which is led by the two-star Fox. The total cost of the consolidation has not been determined, he said.
The Marine Expeditionary Brigade, a force that will consist of several elements of thousands of Marines and sailors, will reside within II MEF. Its command element will consist of roughly 200 personnel. Once II MEF relocates to Norfolk, the MEB will stand alone with a one-star general in command. The MEB would have a headquarters capable of deploying as a war-fighting force.
Geography, according to Fox, is everything. Because of the move, the II MEF commanding general will have a much more difficult time scheduling face-to-face interactions with the other generals, subordinate commanders and Marines. Current practices within the MEF like face time with commanders are going to be 80 percent of the challenge, with the other 20 percent being the execution, he said.
“As we shrink down the MEF we are going to see some change,” Fox said. “We are going to stand down one battalion and one squadron. ...We’re going to reorganize the logistics group so it has less people. ...We’ll maintain the capability just at a smaller capacity. ...We won’t have as much on the shelf.”
Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, has discussed local impacts with the Carolina constituency in Washington D.C., while both Fox and Brig. Gen. Robert Castellvi have discussed local impacts with the areas local government, he said. Fox acknowledged that the drawdown will have an impact on the area, but is unsure how extensive it will be, he said.
“We’re certainly trying to make sure this is not a surprise to anybody,” Fox said. “We’re trying to lay out the full impacts of sequestration on what we consider the nation’s crisis response force. … (The drawdown) is certainly not the Marine Corps’ or the commandant’s desire. ...I would encourage everybody to take advantage of the fact that we are being forewarned that changes are coming.”
Thomas Brennan is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.