Top Marine: Nation doesn’t grasp impact of massive budget cuts on Defense

Additional Pentagon spending cuts would be dangerous and force the military to cut everything from personnel to ammunition to training, according to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.

In an interview with The Hill, the nation’s top Marine officer warned Monday that the $600 billion in sequestered security cuts that would be triggered if the supercommittee fails would have serious repercussions.


“We as a nation don’t even know, or have not got a sense of appreciation for, the impact that sequestration’s going to have on the Department of Defense,” Amos said, leaning in to drive home his point. “I don’t think we understand the magnitude of the impact that sequestration would have.

“Sequestration becomes automatic cuts. And they’re not arbitrary, they’re uniform,” Amos said in his Pentagon office. “I think there are [combat] capabilities that we will end up losing because of sequestration.”

Amos’s warnings echo those from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who in recent days has ramped up his rhetoric against the additional $600 billion in cuts. Last Thursday, the Pentagon chief said $1 trillion in total cuts would make the U.S. military a “paper tiger” that can’t keep pace with its adversaries. 

Amos wouldn’t predict what would happen with the deficit committee, saying he has no inside information about whether the panel will reach a deal on $1.2 trillion in federal cuts before the Thanksgiving deadline.

“I read the same newspapers you do,” Amos told The Hill. “One day it’s hope. The next day it’s gloom. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” 

Amos said service officials have yet to look at options for how they would enact the triggered funding reductions, which — when coupled with a $350 billion reduction over 10 years that is already being implemented — would equal a nearly $1 trillion cut to planned Pentagon spending.

It would mean significant funding cuts, as he put it, “across everything — manpower, programs, operations and maintenance funds,” the commandant said. “It’s going to be ammunition, it’s going to be equipment, it’s going to be people [and] training.”

But more broadly, the likely effects of sequestration on the U.S. military are harder to quantify, Amos said.

The leaders of the nation’s amphibious force have yet to look at plans for how to manage the budget turbulence that would be spawned by the $600 billion trigger cut. But the commandant made clear his top priority is to make moves that protect the “character” of his “Devil Dogs” — and the service’s combat power.

“I’m not talking about a certain number of Marines,” he said. “I’m talking about the individual character of the Marine, because that’s the heart and soul of the Marine Corps.”

He also would move to secure dollars to refurbish equipment that has been strained by a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Amos expects the bill for that overhaul would be about $3 billion.

And while some defense analysts and liberal lawmakers say pricey Pentagon weapons programs should be killed, Amos signaled he is ready to fight for the Corps’s top hardware programs.

“There is a piece [of the force] that we’re going to have to modernize. That has bad connotations, because people think we’re going out and buying new slick, shiny objects. No,” Amos said. “There are some things [that must be replaced] because they’re just physically worn out.”

One example is the service’s version of the F-35, which is intended to replace three existing planes. Another is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV).

Some Pentagon officials, lawmakers and analysts say a supercommittee failure would force the military to go below force-reduction plans established last year.

But Amos made clear he opposes shrinking the Corps’s ranks below the current target of 186,800, which is already a decrease from 202,000. 

“If sequestration happens, I cannot tell you how big the Marine Corps will be,” Amos said.

“Any lower than 186,800, and I start getting nervous.”

That’s because a force that size can only do one major war at a time — and without a deep bench back home to continuously rotate into theater.

“It means you may be very limited in what you can do elsewhere in the world. It also means if you go do” a major war, “rotating forces will probably be irrelevant,” he said.

Going below 186,800 Marines also would lead service brass to dip below 24 infantry battalions. That’s key because “the heart and soul of the Marines is the infantry battalion,” Amos said.

Asked if he would, if forced by additional cuts, opt for fewer infantry battalions that are fully manned, trained and equipped, Amos immediately shot back, “Absolutely.”

“Whatever number of infantry battalions we have will be robust, fully trained, fully equipped and ready to go,” he said.

“We’ve learned that lesson over and over again. I’ve been in the Marine Corps where we’ve had manning-per-unit in the 80 percent, where we’ve got equipment manning at 80 percent, where training was hit-and-miss,” the commandant said. “That’s a recipe for a hollow force. We’re not going to do that.”

While some defense hawks in Capitol Hill and Washington think tanks contend price should not be a factor when talking national security, Amos — noting he also is a taxpayer — said DOD must keep the nation safe without “breaking the bank.”

In that vein, Amos has asked his top subordinates: “What is good enough?”

It’s already producing answers. For instance, the Marines now plan to keep thousands of existing Humvees instead of replacing them all with pricey new JLTVs.

“How many of those should we send back trough the depot and get refurbished? And how many should that be?” he asked. “We already own them. Why not hold onto some of those things?

“At the end of the day, the nation needs … its Marine Corps, and the Department of Defense, to defend the nation,” the commandant said. “And it needs a Department of Defense that doesn’t break the bank.

“I’m going to make sure we’re doing our part.”