By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR.
WASHINGTON: Fewer F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, MV-22 Ospreys, AH-1 Cobras, and UH-1 Hueys. No Marine Personnel Carrier. Maybe no Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to replace the Humvee. 8,000 fewer Marines on active duty. The Marine Commandant has put all that on the table as part of his proposal to the Defense Secretary’s Strategic Choices and Management Review. If sequester goes into effect in its full 10-year, $500 billion glory – and all signs so far are it will – then Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos stands ready to sacrifice almost everything except the Amphibious Combat Vehicle and combat readiness.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hasn’t made his final decisions, Gen. Amos emphasized at a Defense Writers’ Group breakfast this morning. But Amos made clear his preferences. A select and secretive team on Amos’s staff has come up with its own plan to cut the Marine Corps budget by 10 percent – reflecting full sequester – and submitted it to Hagel to be considered as part of the SCMR.
“I don’t want this to happen,” Amos said, but if it has to, “tell me what my budget’s going to be; I’ll build the best Marine Corps that America can afford.”
“I don’t want to get out ahead of my secretary because there’ve been no final decisions made,” Amos said when asked for details, but the butcher’s bill for full sequestration will definitely cost the Marines Corps “infantry battalions… logistics battalions…. fixed-wing squadrons … [some] F-35s… some [AH-1] Cobras and [UH-1] Hueys… some MV-22s.”
Then there is the gear the Marines may never get at all. That includes the Marine Personnel Carrier, a wheeled, armored transport meant to complement more costly tracked vehicles. Just weeks ago contractors were boasting about successful trials of MPC contenders. But “MPC is off the table now,” Amos sighed. “It’s not a function of it wasn’t a good idea and there wasn’t a need” – it was and there is – “but you can’t have everything…. We’ll keep the concept, probably, alive but we’re not heading towards MPC right now.”
Then Amos raised a big question mark over a big program, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, an armored truck meant to combine the protection of the MRAPs built for Afghanistan and Iraq with the offroad mobility of the original Humvee. The Army is buying more than 90 percent of the new vehicles, but the Marines were slated to buy the first 5,500 JLTVs off the production line. Even that figure required the Corps to keep (and modernize) half its existing Humvees. Now it may buy no JLTVs at all.
“JLTV is moving along,” said Amos, “[but] under sequestration I’d say it’s certainly on the block for consideration.” As with the Marine Personnel Carrier, “I need them, I like ‘em, but [if] I pay my full sequester bill of 10 percent, it’s going to be questionable whether I can afford JLTV,” he said. “I like what I see but I’m not going to die in a ditch over it.”
What Amos will die in a ditch over, however, is a new amphibious armored transport to carry Marines from their assault ships to shore and then, switching to tank-like tracks, inland. That capability is so critical to the Marines’ core competency as a seaborne force that Amos said he will cancel JLTV and live with refurbished Humvees “before I mortgage the Amphibious Combat Vehicle.”
“That program is alive,” Amos said of the ACV. “I have kept the money – it’s a modest amount of money” in the near-term, all for R&D.
“I’m only going to get one bite at this apple; I don’t want to mess this up,” Amos said. That’s because in 2011 Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the previous attempt at an amphibious transport, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The EFV’s cost and complexity had gotten out of control, because the Marines’ requirements for rapid movement ship-to-shore required the 40-ton armored vehicle to “plane” across the surface of the water like a speedboat. By contrast, the current LVTP-7 Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) is a “displacement” vehicle that keeps its hull in the water like a conventional watercraft. But, said Amos, “you can only push the steel brick through the water so fast unless you get it up on plane.”
Nor has Amos given up on high speed, not yet. (He didn’t detail why, but Marines are deeply worried that, as anti-ship cruise missiles proliferate in so-called “anti-acess/area denial” defenses, future enemies will be able to keep the Navy so far off shore that existing amphibians couldn’t make it to the beach in time).
The Marines have already completed one formal analysis of alternatives (AOA), but Amos has told the two prime contractors, “one more time, give me your concept on a high-water-speed vehicle,” he said. “They’re going to tell me in the fall, and then shortly after the New Year begins in 2014, we’ll put out an RFP, request for proposal” – either for a slower “displacement” vehicle or a faster “planing” one, depending on what the budget can bear.
“I’m not naïve, cost is important to me,” Amos emphasized. “I need a good solid Ford F-150, I don’t need a Cadillac Escalade.”
Amos was reluctant to give precise figures for any of these economies – and in many cases they’re still being thrashed out, such as the price difference between the two types of ACV.
The one hard number the commandant would give was 8,000: That’s the number of active-duty Marines he’ll have to give up under sequestration. The Marine Corps was already coming down from a wartime high of 202,000 to 182,000 under pre-sequestraiton budget plans; the sequester would take it down to 174,000. (That’s all active-duty troops: The Marine Reserve didn’t grow for the war and it’s not being cut now, Amos said).
But the Marines who remain, Amos pledged, will be fully equipped, trained, and ready to go. Historically, Marine units averaged “about 80 percent [of authorized] equipment, 80 percent manning, probably abouty 60 percent readiness,” he said. “The truth of the matter is we weren’t already ready to go.”
That’s no longer acceptable, Amos said. Sequestration has taken a deep bite out of readiness in 2013 simply because “operations and maintenance” funds were the easiest to cut in a hurry, but going forward, Amos said, units will have 97 percent of their authorized personnel, 100 percent of their authorized equipment, and 100 percent of their O&M training money. Said Amos, “I may have fewer units, but by golly they’re going to be ready.”