The Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Gen. 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 U.S. armed forces, has begun to calculate the consequences of coming cuts in budgets and personnel. Those cuts arise from the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 10 years of war there and in Iraq.

Even though the Obama Administration has proclaimed a “pivot to the Pacific” in which the U.S. will focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the pledge of favoring forces here 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 presidential election in November. If President 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 Marine Corps either posted from California to Hawaii, Japan, Korea, and Guam, or is 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 Marine 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 Marines being ready to respond swiftly to a crisis. “The world is not getting any nicer,” he said. Thus, he added, there’s 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 USMC 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 travelled 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 American allies and friends in Asia and the Pacific the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 September 11, 2001.

On budget issues, the Marines have been in these straits before. After the U.S. engagement in Vietnam ended in 1973, the draft was discontinued, recruiting was dismal, and military spending was severely reduced under President Jimmy Carter.

This was the day of the “hollow Army” with divisions that were not ready for combat and of Navy warships that could not sail for lack of trained crew. The Commandant of the Marine Corps then, Gen. Robert Barrow, refrained from protesting in public.

But when pressed in Congress as to whether the military budget under President Carter was sufficient, Barrow replied: “In a word, no.”

With today’s economic difficulties and consequent budget crunch, Amos said he accepted the $487 billion cut in overall military spending that was to be imposed over the next 10 years. He suggested that the Marine Corps would live with whatever the Congress provided.

The general said, however, he was “deeply concerned” about the possibility that more cuts would be mandated across the board if the White House and the 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’s relatively small budget. For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the corps has asked for $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.”

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth