Downsizing of the Marine Corps
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    Downsizing of the Marine Corps

    Washington --- To free up money to modernize its war-fighting ability, the Pentagon is considering cutting tens of thousands of troops under a budget that will begin taking shape this fall, defense officials say.
    The proposed reductions have been discussed with leaders of the four services, the officials said, noting that the Army and the Air Force would be hardest hit. The Army would lose one division, which could mean 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers. The Air Force could face a cut of 40,000 uniformed personnel.

    The Navy could lose 20,000 sailors, officials said, and the Marines might be reduced by 2,000 to 5,000.

    Such cuts, though, would face stiff political resistance. Military officers, civilian leaders and some in Congress have warned that the services need more personnel, not less, to meet the demands of peacekeeping missions and the global war on terrorism. Some fear that cutting troop levels also would put existing forces at greater risk.

    Pentagon officials said the proposed cuts were the interim results of a study undertaken by David Chu, the undersecretary for personnel and readiness. The study is to be completed in September, when the Pentagon will begin drafting its budget for the 2004 fiscal year, which begins in October of next year.

    In its budget planning last year, the Pentagon considered sizable cuts in forces, including two Army divisions. The idea set off outcries from Congress and Army leaders. They contended that the service needed even more troops for its 21st century missions.

    Those suggested reductions were shelved after Sept. 11. Testifying to Congress in February on the Pentagon budget that begins Oct. 1, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: ''Now, in the midst of a war on terror whose final dimension is still unknown, we do not believe is the time to be cutting manpower.''

    But with personnel eating up a significant portion of the defense budget, and with Rumsfeld and his aides eager to harness the latest technology and weaponry, the Pentagon has begun to focus on cutting jobs among the 1.4 million people on active duty, as well as the 1.3 million in the National Guard and Reserves.

    The Army has 481,000 personnel on active duty, followed by the Navy, at 382,000, the Air Force, 360,000, and the Marines, 173,000.

    Though the Army would lose one of its 10 active-duty divisions under Chu's interim findings, it's unclear whether cuts in the other services would come from support troops or combat units, officials said. But analysts said that the sizable proposed reductions for the Air Force and Navy would likely mean combat forces would be cut.

    Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, had no specific comment on the proposed figures. She noted that Chu is working on a wide-ranging study that, besides the size of the force, is reviewing recruitment and retention of personnel and the best way to use National Guard and Reserve forces.

    The proposed defense budget for 2003 is $361 billion, an increase of $34 billion over the current year and the largest increase since President Reagan's Pentagon buildup of the 1980s.

    In the 2003 budget, as in the Pentagon's spending plans over the past two decades, the largest percentage of money --- 40 percent --- is for operations and maintenance, to pay for everything from fighting the war in Afghanistan to fixing the Navy's aging F-14 Tomcats.

    The next-biggest category is personnel, which for years has consumed roughly one-fourth of the defense budget. Personnel costs exceed the money spent to buy weapons or to study and develop new ones. Besides considering cuts in personnel, Rumsfeld and his aides are looking at possible cuts in some weapons programs, including the multi-service Joint Strike Fighter and the Air Force's F-22 fighter. In addition, officials said, they might eliminate the Army's proposed Comanche helicopter and the Marines' proposed V-22 Osprey.

    Michael E. O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said he thought that while the proposed cuts are surprisingly high, they make budgetary and military sense. Eventually, O'Hanlon said, such force cuts will make sense with, for example, a Navy that is designing ships that need smaller crews.

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