The Marine Corps focuses on developing capabilities for great power conflict after two decades of conducting counterinsurgency ashore. End strength holds steady in FY 2020, with no significant growth in the foreseeable future, requiring tradeoffs of legacy capabilities to create new capabilities and potentially causing stress on the force as it continues to meet high day-to-day deployment demands.
-- The Marine Corps’ end strength remains largely constant, holding at roughly 186,000 after expanding during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
-- Despite a continuing high operational tempo, the Marine Corps is choosing to pursue modernization over expanding force structure.
-- New capabilities will therefore require offsets from legacy capabilities.
-- General Berger’s new guidance aims to restore the Marine Corps to its naval roots after two decades of operations ashore, invest in capabilities focused on great power conflict in the Pacific, and enhance individual fighting prowess.
-- Marine Corps aviation continues to upgrade its platforms at a steady rate, leading to a newer and younger fleet. Although the Marine Corps procures three MQ-9 Reapers in FY 2020, it lags the other services in fielding UAVs.
-- As part of General Berger’s guidance, the Marine Corps is looking into smaller, more affordable amphibious ships and alternative platforms for amphibious operations.
Unique among the services, the Marine Corps comes out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan larger than it went in (186,100 today versus 172,600 in 1999). That growth has allowed it to maintain its traditional ground and aviation units and create new units for cyber and information warfare. Nevertheless, unlike the other three services, it grows little through FY 2024 and does not attempt to attain its previous goal of 194,000. That creates a tension in the future between creating additional new capabilities and maintaining traditional capabilities.
The National Defense Strategy (NDS) creates two further tensions. The first is the direction to create new capabilities for great power conflict, sacrificing force structure as necessary, while at the same time meeting demands to provide continuing high levels of forward deployments for global engagement and crisis response. The other tension is between preparing units for these day-to-day forward deployments or for great power conflict, the training and equipment being different for each.
The FY 2020 budget looks like a continuation of the existing Marine Corps’ strategy, but guidance set by the new commandant, General David H. Berger, directs the Marine Corps to march off in a different direction, with important future changes to forces and equipment.
The FY 2020 Marine Corps budget increases active duty end strength by only 100. In the past, the Marine Corps had talked about expanding the active force to about 194,000, but the FY 2020 budget projects only a small increase to 186,400 through FY 2024.1 This lack of growth makes the Marine Corps unusual in that the other three services all plan to add at least some end strength, but it reflects the broader priorities of the NDS: fix readiness, then focus on modernization to prepare for a great power conflict; force structure comes last.
General Berger doubles down on this budget strategy, saying: “If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so.” (end of excerpt)
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