As the Pentagon works to complete its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) due to Congress is February, military leaders may inadvertently end up answering a fundamental question: can the Defense Department continue carrying out the current military strategy–with a rebalance to the Pacific while maintaining a strong presence in the Middle East at the heart of the strategy–given the department’s fiscal constraints, or do officials need to consider altering the strategy to better reflect DoD’s expected level of resources?

Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the Marine Corps’ representative to the QDR, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday that, “for example, are we going to continue with the tenets of the strategic guidance, perhaps albeit at a higher level of risk? Or are we going to say that we need to back off and need to take a look at a whole new type of strategy?”

Marine Corps amphibious operations
The Marine Corps wants to grant more control to the mid-sized Marine Expeditionary Brigade to allow MEB leaders to plan stand-alone deployments or seamlessly integrate into existing joint operations without the help of higher headquarters. Photo courtesy U.S. Navy.

Though those big-picture questions still remain open, McKenzie said there was quite a bit of clarity in what the Marine Corps thinks it should look like going forward. However, he noted the final report delivered to Congress would come from the Secretary of Defense and may not exactly reflect the services’ recommendations.

The Marine Corps plans to drop to about 174,000 Marines by the end of fiscal year 2017, McKenzie said, with the focus on being a forward-deployed crisis response force while accepting some risk in its ability to conduct high-end and long-term stability operations.

To support that focus, the role of the smaller Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) will be emphasized, with command structure changes being planned to allow the three MEBs to operate as stand-alone forces that can deploy quickly to respond to a developing situation or join an existing joint operation without having to go through a higher headquarters. The command changes will allow MEB leadership to tap into State Department and non-governmental organization resources as well to help plan the most appropriate response to a humanitarian aid/disaster relief (HA/DR) mission or another lower-end operation.

The seven Marine Expeditionary Units will remain largely unchanged.

“We will tinker with various command relationships with the Marine Expeditionary Brigades with these MEUs as we go forward, but nothing that’s fundamental to the design,” McKenzie said.

The primary change to the force structure will be providing for two permanent Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces. Since the Marine Corps deployed a Special Purpose MAGTF Crisis Response unit to the Mediterranean Sea last year, other combatant commanders have expressed interest in having a similar force to help provide presence when a MEU cannot be in the area.

“We think, for example, if we keep this capability in the Mediterranean base, by 2017 not only would this headquarters conduct crisis response actions, it would also manage our theater security cooperation activities from the Black Sea in the north to the west coast of Africa to the south,” McKenzie said. He added the Marine Corps is neutral on where the second Special Purpose MAGTF would be based.

McKenzie stressed that the Marine Corps would maintain its ability to assemble a large Marine Expeditionary Force if needed.

“We really don’t lessen the emphasis or the importance of the MEF because if you go to a high-end war fight you are going to go probably with a Marine Expeditionary Force,” he said. “Rather, we accentuate not a gap, but a niche we’ve identified that we can fill with a Marine Expeditionary Brigade for not a high-end war fight necessarily but rather a large complex HA/DR mission or even a small contingency operation.”

But, the emphasis on crisis response will mean a reduction in capabilities for higher-end operations. To draw down to 174,000, McKenzie said the Marine Corps will shrink its tank and artillery forces.