With a rapidly shrinking force and fewer amphibious ships available, the Marine Corps is questioning whether it can support the strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region. “We are on our way …. to a less than a 300 hundred ship Navy. We are on our way to a 175,000 man Marine Corps. These are the messages we are trying to take to Congress,” Gen. John M. Paxton Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said April 7 in a speech at the Navy League’s Sea, Air, Space conference at National Harbor, Md.
“Do we have enough people and enough ships to do it?” he asked of the Asia-Pacific strategic shift. Budget pressures will bring the service’s end strength down from 202,000 during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to the current goal of 186,800. However, with cuts under sequestration scheduled to return after 2015 the force will shrink to 175,000.
Meanwhile, the service said it needs 54 amphibious assault ships to do its job. Current plans call for only 38, but that is likely to shrink to 33, he said. Operational availability of those ships continues to go down as they age, and they spend more time in maintenance yards. “And the demands on a diminished fleet keep going up,” he said.
Paxton recalled Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines last year. Three out of four of the Western Pacific region’s amphibious vessels were undergoing repairs. The initial efforts to provide assistance were carried out by V-22 Ospreys and KC-130 refueling aircraft. It took two weeks to get the ships out of the yard and to sail to the hard hit areas.
“Filipinos were living and dying based on V-22 and KC-130s … Think of the difference it would have made if we had more ships,” Paxton said.
In another example, Paxton said when the Marine Corps was called upon to assist the embassy in South Sudan, the closest available Marine Air-Ground Task Force was in a “Northern Mediterranean” nation, which he did not disclose.
Two V-22 Ospreys and two C-130Js were able to leave that country, fly across the Mediterranean, along the Red Sea to Djibouti, and then on to their destination with a total of three air-to-air refuelings and two ground stops. They flew 3,175 miles in 15 and half hours, which he said was “unheard of.” But this was made necessary by a lack of presence in the region and the fact that nearby Marine Corps forces were “disaggregated” carrying out various missions.
As far as fighter squadrons are concerned, they once had 12 to 14 aircraft available. Now, they are almost routinely 12. “We project next year may only have eight on the line. At least four of those 12 aircraft are going to be in for phased maintenance,” he said. “When you have the 12 you’re supposed to have, and you only got eight on the line, and you still have a full squadron’s worth of pilots, the training doesn’t happen,” he said. Forward deployed units have all the necessary aircraft, “but what happens to the bench?” he asked.
“If they are not ready and there is a major conflict, the nation must ask itself what kind of risk it is willing to take,” Paxton said. “With the dollars we have, and the ships we have and the aircraft we have, and the people we have, are we going to be ready to do what we need to do?” he asked.