Since Gen. James Amos became commandant of the Marine Corps two years ago, the sea service has been challenged on multiple fronts.
First the ramping up of combat in Afghanistan, as a surge of Marines flooded violent Taliban strongholds in the south. Now the drawdown and handoff to Afghan national forces, despite no sign of an enemy collapse.
On the home front, economic woes and the winding down of more than 11 years at war have pinched military budgets. The Corps is shrinking by 20,000 Marines, to 182,100 and scraping to repair or replace battle-worn equipment.
More tough trade-offs lie ahead if nearly $500 billion in defense cuts already in store are doubled under the budget control law triggering “sequestration.” If Congress can’t find a solution, virtually no Marine program will be untouchable, Amos said.
Amid combat and budgetary strains, the Corps is also undergoing deep social change. After navigating the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” restrictions that prevented gay troops from serving openly, the armed forces now are focused on expanding opportunities for women and reducing sexual assault.
Military reporter Gretel C. Kovach sat down with Amos this week in Yuma, where the commandant was introducing the Defense Department’s first operational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter squadron. Here are excerpts.
Q: Regarding Afghanistan, poppy cultivation rose 19 percent last year in Helmand province, where the Marines are stationed, according to the United Nations, and insurgents are hitting Afghan national forces hard. Are things falling apart now that the Marines are heading home?
A: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just the opposite. As I’ve said over the last year and a half, I am growing more confident in the ability of the Afghan National Army. While we’ve drawn down in Helmand province, they have drawn up. They are about to field their fourth brigade. The fact that the enemy is attacking the security forces is a sign they understand that this is probably their last chance. The poppy growth increase — in the main areas a big chunk of it is no longer poppy. They’ve pushed it out to the deserts, in the area that was almost uninhabited.
Q: The U.N. report confirms that, but said cultivation on the outskirts more than makes up for it. That really concerns me because you and others in the military have been telling me that money goes directly into the enemy’s coffers to buy things like roadside bomb materials, and that inevitably means more wounded Marines.
A: The fact that cultivation is up doesn’t talk about two things. One, our ability to actually intercept the product as they drove it in cars and tried to get it down across the desert to lonely areas where they could transfer it across the border. We intercepted a bunch of it. Second thing is they have got a new governor in Helmand. By all accounts he wants to take a stronger position with regards to poppy. Yet to be seen what his impact is going to be, but I like what I hear.
Q: Marine war zone deaths have tapered significantly. Why is that?
A: The numbers (deployed there) have gone down, from about 20,000 a year ago to 6,800. The other part of the story is the Afghan National Army (soldiers) are actually in the lead. On the patrols, planning major operations. They are doing the kinds of stuff we were doing a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. And they’ve suffered a lot of casualties. They’ve been in a lot of fighting, and they’ve been very, very courageous.
Q: The overall level of violence is a lot higher now in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq when the Marines were drawing down.
A: Well, yeah. We had gone through the Awakening, and the tribal chiefs had taken charge of their piece of Iraq. We haven’t really had that yet (in Afghanistan). We’ve got district governors that have been very courageous. The one in Nawa, he’s very forthright. An honest man who seems to have a lot of sway with the people. That’s probably the closest example of what we saw in Iraq, but it’s certainly not universal.
Q: Let’s talk sequestration. What impact could this have on the Corps?
A: I think it’s going to be significant. The services were told not to do the detailed planning for this thing. But we have a sense of the impact when you start talking percentages. The gross aggregate percentage is probably a 9 to 11 percent reduction in the Marine Corps budget, minus personnel. My draft budget that is on the Hill is $23.9 billion. Because my budget is small and our service is so small, it has a disproportionate effect. We buy fewer things. But because you’ve bought fewer quantities the price of whatever it is, it could be a weapon, it could be a vehicle, the price goes up. You just reach a point and you go I can’t afford it, and you cancel programs.
Q: What can you cut?
A: Well, we haven’t picked programs yet. We’ve had an effort underway called a force optimization review group. We start with a mission, and we say what is it that America expects of its Marine Corps? We have to be able to do this when America, when the president and the national command authorities say, send in the Marines. So we put money in those pots. Then we said OK, what’s left over and how do we afford the rest of the Marine Corps — bases and equipment and reset and modernization? We are working pretty hard to figure out what is good enough to get us through the next couple of years.
Q: The Marine Corps has said the F-35B is critical. Is that on the table, possibly cutting back purchases?
A: It’s not for me. But for the truth of the matter, I think everything is going to be on the table. Sequestration says you’re going to take a percentage out of every single program you have. It doesn’t say you have the opportunity, General Amos, to pick and choose. As the leader of the Marine Corps, I am not going to want to cut a lot of my programs and modernization, because I need them for reset. The F-35 is replacing three airplanes. These airplanes are running out of service life. It’s not a matter of, I can send them back to the depot and do a service life extension. They’ve already had that. My amphibious combat vehicle is going to replace a vehicle that is 40 years old.
What I don’t want is battalions or squadrons at 70 percent manning and 70 percent equipment and 60 percent of the training money they need and ammunition. The hollow force matter, I lived in that in the ’70s, the ’80s and part of the ’90s. I am the product of a hollow force. That’s not what we do for the nation. The world can’t tolerate a hollow force today.
Q: Does the Corps plan to stop segregating female recruit training at Parris Island, S.C.?
A: No, I think we’ve got that right. You’ve got 12 weeks to change this guy and gal. And what I don’t need is any distractions. Moms and dads are more apt to send their daughter to the Marine Corps, in other words to be more comfortable, with segregated female boot camp. We see that in our recruiting.
Q: It seems odd because once they are Marines, they are going to be shoulder-to-shoulder with males.
A: It’s really a function of how do we get the best product? The best young man and the best young woman? It goes both ways. I want my guys focused narrowly on their training. And I want my females doing the exact same thing. When they come out the other end and walk across that grinder out there at 12 weeks, they are all Marines. From that point on, the training is all integrated. It doesn’t matter whether you are going to flight training or the school of infantry.
What we are going to do, though, is we are going to bring some of our female drill instructors from Parris Island out here to San Diego and put them in positions of authority and responsibility.
Q: So the men can get used to it?
A: The males, these young recruits, they look around and go, maybe someday I can be just like my sergeant instructor. Now all of a sudden they’re going to see a hat walk in the room and it’s going to be a female. My female drill instructors … they look like 10 million bucks. I guarantee you if they walked in a room with a bunch of male recruits, they’d snap to. Because our female drill instructors are such terrific role models. I am pretty proud of them.