Marines to cut troops, not weapons, to meet 2013 budget cuts

The Marine Corps plans to shed troops, not weapons programs, next year in order to meet the budget cuts mandated by the August debt-ceiling deal, a senior service official said Wednesday. 

The debt-reduction law ordered $350 billion in national defense cuts over a decade. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the 2013 budget plan will propose cutting $260 billion of that in the next five years.

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Panetta and other senior military officials have said the Defense Department can absorb the 10-year budget hit without jeopardizing national security, but some congressional defense hawks and analysts have questioned whether weapon programs would fall victim to the cuts.

For now, the Marine Corps is making sure that its hardware programs are off the chopping block. 

“In terms or procurement, we have protected that,” Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said Wednesday.

The Marines will achieve their portion of the cuts, in part, by shrinking from 202,000 troops to 186,800. Officials also have “reduced capacity” elsewhere, Dunford said.

Those moves have allowed the service to keep its “modernization profile” intact in the 2013 defense budget plan that will go to Congress in February.

But that spending plan will not feature all the bells and whistles Marine leaders might desire.

It will “not necessarily be those things we want,” Dunford said. But it will give the Marines what they think “we will need” over the next five years, he said.

That means the service has found a way to keep on track its plans for high-profile programs like the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft, its variant of the F-35 fighter, a new amphibious personnel craft and several ground combat trucks. 

And that is good news for companies like Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35, and the team of Bell Helicopter and Boeing, which manufactures the V-22.

David Berteau of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said recently during a forum in Washington that hardware programs will take a hit.

Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center said procurement accounts “always carry a heavy burden” when there is a decrease in military budgets.

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But Adams said the military’s most prized programs likely would only see modest changes — not termination. That means buying fewer models, as well as stretching out development and purchasing schedules.

Smaller programs make up about 60 percent of the Pentagon’s procurement budget, and “that’s the place to look,” Adams said.

That’s largely because things like tanks, ammunition and front-end loaders have no constituencies in Congress, Adams said.

But all of this holds, according to Pentagon officials and analysts, only if $600 billion in additional national defense cuts triggered by the failure of the supercommittee are avoided. Many lawmakers, including the House GOP leadership, are pushing for those cuts to be changed. 

The Pentagon has not drawn up any plans for how those deeper cuts would alter its budget, something former officials say is a mistake.

Dunford said if the Pentagon is forced to cut nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, it would require “difficult decisions” for the Marines, such as whether to shed more personnel and consider which programs might get killed.

“Many of us don’t think we’ve hit the bottom yet in terms of budget cuts,” one former Pentagon official said Wednesday.