- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Marine Corps has launched an ambitious effort to cut outdated programs and modernize for 21st-century conflict.

Ironically, the prospect of flat defense budgets in the coming years may help the Corps meet those goals.

Defense analysts say each military service will likely be forced to make some difficult choices that have been put off for years because Pentagon spending is expected to plateau or even be cut in the post-Trump, post-COVID-19 era. “Legacy” systems that have long been on the chopping block but survived thanks to extra cash in the coffers, and even proposed adjustments to the number of active-duty personnel that have stalled in the planning phase, may finally be implemented in 2021 and beyond.

Nowhere will that dynamic be more evident than in the Marine Corps, where Commandant Gen. David H. Berger has put the service on a path toward sweeping changes that specialists say will almost surely continue after President-elect Joseph R. Biden takes office Jan. 20 and a new leadership team assumes power at the Pentagon.

Gen. Berger’s revamp calls on the Marine Corps to give up all of its tanks, dramatically remake its artillery batteries and cut the number of active-duty service members in its ranks.

Those proposals are part of an ambitious initiative to remake the Marine Corps into a leaner, more efficient fighting force suited to a potential war with China in the Pacific rather than the large-scale ground operations in the Middle East over the past two decades.

That kind of major overhaul would ordinarily run into stiff institutional resistance inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, but the financial realities projected over the next five years could make such resistance futile and give momentum to those seeking to upend the status quo.

“When you look at the likelihood that defense spending is going to be flat, it may even turn down … I think all of that will compound the pressure on the Department of Defense and Marine Corps to go further in the direction the commandant is taking them,” said Christian Brose, chief strategy officer at defense technology company Anduril Industries.

“I think the resourcing pressure very likely makes reform more of an imperative and continues the Marine Corps down the path it’s on,” said Mr. Brose, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Defense spending already was expected come back down to Earth if Mr. Trump lost reelection to Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump oversaw regular increases to the Pentagon budget during his four years in office. The COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the global economy has only increased the likelihood of stagnant spending.

The Defense Department’s advance budget plans, known as the Future Years Defense Program, already have made belt-tightening assumptions.

“According to estimates provided in the 2021 FYDP, total funding would be relatively flat through 2025, averaging about $707 billion per year in 2021 dollars,” reads a portion of a September study by the Congressional Budget Office.

The massive spending package that just passed Congress provides about $696 billion for the Pentagon in the current fiscal year. The latest National Defense Authorization Act, which became law after Congress managed its first override of a Trump veto on New Year’s Day, greenlights about $740 billion in spending, though the $696 billion figure better reflects the Defense Department’s spending this fiscal year.

A new reality

It’s unlikely that Pentagon spending will be increased under a Democratic president with an ambitious domestic agenda. Left-leaning lawmakers are increasing pressure to cut defense spending further and shift the funds to health care programs, education initiatives and other efforts.

Pentagon leaders say the best place to look for potential cuts is in legacy systems. These decades-old programs inside each military service are either redundant in today’s environment or have outlived their usefulness. Many have survived because of support on Capitol Hill even when Defense Department officials do not want them.

“Frankly, my inclination is not to risk any in the modernization programs. It’s to go back and pull out more of the legacy programs,” former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said last year when discussing potential cost-cutting efforts. “We need to move away from legacy, and we need to invest those dollars into the future. We have a lot of legacy programs out there right now. I could pick dozens out from all branches of the services. So that is where I would start.”

Mr. Esper was fired last month by the president and replaced by acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller. Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, Mr. Biden’s nominee for defense secretary, has had a front-row seat to budget debates but has said little about his plans should he be confirmed.

Analysts point to a host of legacy systems across each of the services, including ground vehicles, weapons and warplanes, that could be ripe for elimination if the Pentagon searches for areas to save money.

The Marine Corps’ approach focuses on shedding capabilities that it says it no longer needs and that Corps leaders say can be better performed elsewhere in the military.

“I am convinced that the defining attributes of our current force design are no longer what the nation requires of the Marine Corps,” Gen. Berger said in a landmark document released last year that laid out a 10-year blueprint to shift the service into a more modern role. “With the shift in our primary focus to great-power competition and a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific region, the current force has shortfalls in capabilities needed to support emerging joint, naval and Marine Corps operating concepts.”

Under his plan, the Marine Corps would rid itself of tanks and transfer that responsibility to the Army. The proposal also calls for the Marine Corps to cut the number of bridging companies, suggesting a move away from more traditional ground-based combat operations and toward a focus on island conflicts in places such as the South China Sea.

It also will revamp its artillery strategy by abandoning cannon batteries and embracing anti-ship artillery and other weapons capable of hitting enemy targets from great distances. Gen. Berger’s guidance also called for “the reduction of approximately 12,000 Marines relative to the current total force by 2030,” underscoring the belief that the Marine Corps may shift away from being a major ground combat force in its own right.

Still, some analysts say the Marine Corps may be moving too quickly toward a China-centric approach and warn that the service could find itself unprepared for another Middle Eastern conflict, for example.

“By focusing so tightly on an island campaign in the western Pacific, they are making themselves less adaptable to other kinds of conflict, which are far more likely to occur,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a retired Marine Corps colonel.

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