U.S. Marine Corps

U.S. Military Power: Marine Corps

The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) has positioned itself for crisis response and has evolved its concepts to leverage its equipment more effectively to support operations in a heavily contested maritime environment such as the one found in the Western Pacific. In 2014, 4,000 Marines were still fighting in Afghanistan, though force levels have been decreasing as operations draw down. The military will be deploying 10,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2015, and the Marines will make up a portion of those troops. Throughout the year, Marines also engage in various operations elsewhere; for example, they provided humanitarian assistance to the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.1

Per the Defense Strategic Guidance, maintaining the Corps’ crisis response capability is critical. Thus, given the fiscal constraints imposed, the Marines have prioritized “near-term readiness” for “long-term health.” Specifically, this means prioritizing readiness at the expense of capacity and capability.2 This trade-off is a short-term fix to meet immediate needs, but in the long run, the degradation of investment in equipment will lead to lowered readiness.


The Marine Corps has managed the reduction in funding by cutting capacity. Similar to the Army, the Corps’ measures of capacity are end strength and units (battalions for the Marines and brigades for the Army). End strength has been decreased from a force of 202,100 Active personnel in FY 2012 to 188,800 in FY 2014.3 Of these 188,800 Marines, 6,700 were funded from the Oversees Contingency Operations budget.4 As of now, the drawdown is expected to continue until FY 2015, when the Corps will reach an end strength of 182,100 Active personnel. If sequestration were to occur in FY 2016, end strength would be cut further to 175,000 by FY 2017.5

The Marine Corps organizes itself in infantry battalions, which are its basic combat unit. A battalion has about 900 Marines and includes three rifle companies, a weapons company, and a headquarters and service company. The overall reductions in end strength left the USMC with 25 infantry battalions in FY 2014.6 By FY 2015, the Corps will have 23 infantry battalions. Under full sequestration, USMC end strength will be able to support only 21 infantry battalions.7

In 2010, the USMC determined that its ideal force size would be 186,800.8 However, given the budget pressures from the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the new 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, the Corps decided that a force size of “182,100 active component Marines could still be afforded with reduced modernization and infrastructure support.”9

One impact of reduced capacity is a reduction in dwell time. The stated ideal deployment-to-dwell time ratio is 1:3 (three months at home for every month deployed), which is possible with 186,000 troops.10 If the USMC were to shrink to 175,000 troops, the deployment-to-dwell time ratio would be 1:2.11 This increase in deployment frequency would worsen the degradation of readiness: People and equipment would be used more frequently, with less time to recover between deployments.


The nature of the Marine Corps’ crisis response role requires capabilities that span all domains. The USMC ship requirement is managed by the Navy and is covered in that respective section.

Of the Marine Corps’ current fleet of vehicles, its amphibious vehicles—specifically, the Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV-7A1) and Light Armored Vehicle (LAV)—are the oldest, averaging 35 and 23 years, respectively. Comparatively, the Corps’ M1A1 Abrams inventory is 13 years old with an estimated 34-year life span, and its fleet of light tactical vehicles such as HMMWVs (“Humvees”) are relatively young, averaging five years.

The Corps’ main combat vehicles all entered service in the 1970s and ’80s, and while service life extensions, upgrades, and new generations of designs have allowed the platforms to remain in service, these vehicles are quickly becoming ill-suited to the changing threat environment. For example, with the advent of IEDs, the flat-bottom hulls found on most legacy vehicles are ineffective compared to the more blast-resistant V-shaped hulls incorporated in modern designs.

The Corps’ aircraft have age profiles similar to the Navy’s. The USMC has 237 F/A-18 A–Ds and 29 EA-6Bs, which are nearing (if they have not already surpassed) their intended lifespans. Unlike the Navy, the Corps did not acquire the newer F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets; thus, the older F/A-18 Hornets are going through a service life extension program to extend their lifespan to 10,000 flight hours from the original 6,000 hours. This is to bridge the gap to when the F-35Bs and Cs enter service to replace the Harriers and most of the Hornets. The AV-8B Harrier, designed to take off from the LHAs and LHDs, will be retired in 2024.

The Marine Corps has one MDAP vehicle program. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) is a joint program with the Army to acquire a more survivable light tactical vehicle to replace a percentage of the older HMMWV fleet, originally introduced in 1985. The Marines intend to purchase 5,500 vehicles (10 percent of a total of 54,599). The program is still in development but has experienced about a one-year delay due to a change in requirements, a contract award protest, and concerns regarding technical maturity.12

It should be noted that the Marine Corps has plans to replace the AAV-7A1 and LAV, but those programs are not yet MDAP programs, largely because of recent cancellations and program restructure. The AAV-7A1 was to be replaced by the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a follow-on to the cancelled Advanced AAV. However, the EFV was also cancelled in 2011 due to technical obstacles and cost overruns. The follow-on to the EFV was the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV). Similarly, the Corps planned to replace the LAV inventory with the Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC), which would serve as a Light Armored Vehicle with modest amphibious capabilities but be designed with enhanced survivability.

In 2014, the Marine Corps decided to restructure its modernization programs, essentially combining both efforts, cancelling the development efforts for a completely new ACV, and instead opting to upgrade a portion of the AAV-7A1 fleet. In addition, the Corps will purchase new vehicles based on the MPC concept. In the future, it is likely that this program will become an MDAP.

In FY 2014, the Marine Corps’ largest investment program was the F-35B program. As planned, the F-35B variant will be the first operational variant of the F-35 family and is estimated to reach IOC by late 2015. The Corps is also purchasing 80 F-35Cs. The service’s total procurement of 340 F-35s will not be enough to replace the current inventory of F/A-18s, AV-8Bs, and EA-6Bs, totaling 408 aircraft. Like the F-35A, the F-35B and F-35C variants are subject to development delays, cost overruns, budget cuts, and production problems. The F-35B in particular was placed on probation in 2011 because of its technical challenges. Although probation has since been lifted, a delay in the program timeline is pushing the F-35B IOC date from its original 2012 to 2015.

Today, the MV-22 program is operating with few problems and nearing completion of the full acquisition objective of 460 aircraft. It has been steadily replacing the CH-46, a lift platform dating from the Vietnam War. The USMC heavy lift replacement program, the CH-53K, is a bit more problematic. The CH-53K will replace the Corps’ CH-53E, which averages 25 years. However, the CH-53K is still in development, and critical technologies necessary to achieve the lift requirements are still unproven.


The Marine Corps’ first priority is to be the crisis response force for the military, which is why investment in readiness has been prioritized over capacity and capability. However, in order to invest in readiness in a time of downward fiscal pressure, the Corps has been forced to reduce end strength and delay investment in modernization.13

Despite the emphasis on readiness, in FY 2014, “60 percent of [the Corps’] non-deployed units [were] experiencing degraded readiness in their ability to execute core missions.”14 This constitutes about 48 percent of the total USMC force.15 Because the Marine Corps expects to be the first to respond to a situation or crisis, this dictates that all units, even non-deployed units, should be “ready.”16 The Corps has stated that “over the long-term, resourcing short-term readiness by borrowing-forward from long-term investment resources is unsustainable, and will eventually degrade unit readiness to an unacceptable level.”17

  1. General James F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, “2014 Report to Congress on the Posture of the United States Marine Corps,” testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, March 12, 2014, (accessed August 12, 2014). []
  2. Ibid., p. 3. []
  3. Ibid., p. 15, and U.S. Department of Defense, United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request: Overview, p. A-2. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. U.S. Department of Defense, Estimated Impacts of Sequester-Level Funding: United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request, 
p. 3-2. []
  6. U.S. Department of Defense, United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request: Overview. []
  7. U.S. Department of Defense, Estimated Impacts of Sequestration-Level Funding: United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request, p. 3-2. []
  8. Amos, “2014 Report to Congress on the Posture of the United States Marine Corps,” p. 11. []
  9. Ibid., p. 12. []
  10. Ibid 101. []
  11. Ibid 101. []
  12. Andrew Feickert, “Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV): Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 11, 2014, pp. 2–3, (accessed September 17, 2014). []
  13. Amos, “2014 Report to Congress on the Posture of the United States Marine Corps,” p. 1. []
  14. Ibid. p. 10. []
  15. 37,000 Marines were forward deployed out of 182,100 authorized total end strength in FY 2014, or roughly 20 percent. For these respective figures, see Claudette Roulo, “Marine Corps Will Continue to Serve as Nation’s Ready Force,” American Forces Press Service, April 10, 2014, and U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2015, April 2014, p. 43, (accessed October 15, 2014). []
  16. Amos, “2014 Report to Congress on the Posture of the United States Marine Corps,” p. 10. []
  17. General James F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, “2013 Report to the House Armed Services Committee on the Posture of the United States Marine Corps,” testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, April 16, 2013, p. 15, 
(accessed August 26, 2014). []

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