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thedrifter
12-08-08, 09:38 AM
Marine Corps Speeds Ahead on Growth

By YOCHI J. DREAZEN

WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps is on pace to expand its force by tens of thousands more than two years ahead of schedule, a rare bit of good news for a military stretched thin by the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senior commanders once estimated the growth to 202,000 Marines from 175,000 would take until 2011, but they now hope to reach the target in early 2009.

Marine officials hope their recruiting success -- which they attribute primarily to marketing and advertising -- will give them a leg up in political battles over Democratic moves to cut defense spending and halt the growth of the armed forces. "It would not be a question of stopping us before we get to 202,000. It would mean reducing the force," said Maj. Gen. Robert Milstead, who runs the Marine recruiting command.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is keeping his post under President-elect Barack Obama, announced plans last year to add 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines by 2011 to ease manpower strains. President George W. Bush endorsed the idea. But in recent weeks, Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha, a central player on defense-budget issues, surprised Pentagon officials by asserting that the expansion plans need to be scaled back or canceled.

Mr. Murtha, a Marine veteran, said in a recent interview that money slated for more troops should instead go to repairing equipment worn down by the long wars, taking care of existing troops and buying weapons systems.

Aides say Mr. Gates is sticking to his pro-expansion position, meaning the issue could become an early test of whether defense policy will be set by Congress or by the executive branch in the Obama administration.

Military recruiters say it is too early to calculate the effect of the recent financial crisis on enlistment, but they expect the weak economy to lift their efforts. "The economy is probably making more people think about other options, and we're probably benefiting from that," said Marine Lt. Col. Mike Zeliff, the assistant chief of staff for marketing and recruiting.

Army recruiting spokesman Douglas Smith said, "Historically, a weak economy and a high unemployment rate have had an impact on our numbers."

In an interview, Gen. James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said he hoped the service's ability to hit its growth target ahead of schedule would dissuade policy makers from cutting funding for the new troops.

"Do people want to allow us to continue to have that structure?" he said. "I think we need it. We do not need to start downsizing as soon as we've achieved that growth."

Marine officials have consistently exceeded their yearly targets. They had hoped to end fiscal year 2007 with 184,000 Marines, but finished with 186,500. The target for 2008 was 189,000, but the Marines closed the fiscal year with 198,000.

Unlike the Army, the Marines doesn't try to entice would-be recruits with cash bonuses, money for college or other financial inducements. The Marines instead plays off its image as an elite fighting force. It has used the same advertising slogan for decades: "The few. The proud. The Marines."

Army officials argue that it is unfair to compare their recruiting efforts to those of the Marines, because the Army is much larger. In fiscal year 2008, the Army signed up 80,517 new troops, while the Marines signed up 37,991.

Lt. Col. George Wright, an Army spokesman, said the Army's effort to recruit 65,000 new soldiers was "currently ahead of schedule"

Col. Zeliff said his service has stepped up its efforts to reach out to "influencers" -- coaches and other adults who can determine whether a young person chooses to enlist. One tactic: giving high-school football coaches free tickets for Nike Inc.'s multiday "Coach of the Year" football clinics, at which Marine representatives man information booths and address the coaches.

Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at yochi.dreazen@wsj.com

Ellie