The Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James Amos, says his service, long known for its Spartan ways, is heading again into a “period of austerity” in which he will nurture a return to “a culture of frugality.”
Amos suggested in an interview in Hawaii — as he started a swing through the Asia-Pacific region — that his corps, like other US armed forces, has begun to calculate the consequences of coming cuts in budgets and personnel. Those cuts arise from the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan after 10 years of war there and in Iraq.
Even though US President Barack Obama’s administration has proclaimed a “pivot to the Pacific” in which the US will focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the pledge of favoring forces there over those elsewhere in budgeting has been greeted with more than a bit of skepticism.
In addition, what happens in the near future will depend on the US presidential election in November. If Obama is returned to office, present trends will most likely continue. If the presumptive Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, is elected, a new course may be set.
With two-thirds of the US Marine Corps either posted from California to Hawaii, Japan, South Korea and Guam, or being rotated through allied nations like the Philippines and Australia, Amos set three priorities to confront the uncertainties of coming days.
After the long, tiring deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the corps is regrouping — and trying hard not to settle into a garrison mentality.
“I want to keep their minds occupied with new challenges,” the general said.
The commandant emphasized that marines should be ready to respond swiftly to a crisis.
“The world is not getting any nicer,” he said.
Thus, he added, there is no telling where marines might be needed next: “The reality is that we don’t know where they will go.”
In buying weapons and equipment, “we have to determine what’s good enough,” not what the Marine Corps would like to have.
“After a decade of plenty,” he said, “we are returning to our historically frugal roots.”
To have the marines challenged and ready, Amos said the corps would rely on frequent training exercises with the armed forces of other nations. He discussed those possibilities with political and military leaders as he traveled to Australia, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea before returning to Washington.
In those exercises, the general suggested, the marines would seek to build military-to-military partnerships with other armed forces. The marines would also try to reassure allies and friends in Asia and the Pacific that the US was committed to the security of this region.
That commitment has been questioned throughout Asia in recent years by some leaders who contend that the US has become a declining power hampered by political gridlock, economic stagnation and war-weariness. They say those weaknesses have accumulated since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
On budget issues, the marines have been in these straits before. After the US engagement in Vietnam ended in 1973, the draft was discontinued, recruiting was dismal and military spending was severely reduced under then-US president Jimmy Carter.
This was the day of the “hollow army,” with divisions that were not ready for combat and of US Navy warships that could not sail for lack of trained crew. The Commandant of the Marine Corps then, General Robert Barrow, refrained from protesting in public.
However, when pressed in the US Congress as to whether the military budget under Carter was sufficient, Barrow replied: “In a word, no.”
With today’s economic difficulties and consequent budget crunch, Amos said he accepted the US$487 billion cut in overall military spending that was to be imposed over the next five years. He suggested that the Marine Corps would live with whatever Congress provided.
However, the general said he was “deeply concerned” about the possibility that more cuts would be mandated across the board if the White House and Congress could not agree by January on a new tax and spending plan. (This process is known by the cumbersome, ill-defined and almost unpronounceable word “sequestration.”)
He feared it would have a “disproportionate impact” on the Marine Corps’ relatively small budget. For the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, the corps has asked for US$23.9 billion to cover not only its own costs, but support from the navy in amphibious ships, planes, doctors, medics, chaplains and civil engineers.
That, Amos said, “represents a mere 8 percent of the entire Department of Defense budget.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.