By Andrea Shalal-Esa
RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - Across-the-board budget cuts due to start taking effect in January could set back the U.S. Marine Corps' most important procurement programs, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and may cripple the Marines' ability to respond to multiple crises at once, the top Marine Corps general said.
"Our ability to field a force that's relevant and capable and ready is going to be impacted significantly if sequestration hits," Marine Corps Commandant James Amos said in an interview on Saturday at the annual Tailhook convention of naval aviators in Reno, Nevada.
"If this law actually goes into effect on January 2, I just want to make sure that everybody goes into it with their eyes open," added the four-star general and pilot who once flew the F-4 Phantom and F/A-18 Hornet fighter planes.
The Marine Corps is the smallest of the U.S. military services, but its troops are those often sent out first.
Amos said the Marines' stock had never been higher after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the service would remain critically important as the United States shifted its focus increasingly to the Asia-Pacific region in coming years.
He insisted that he was committed to fielding "the best, most capable, relevant, rapidly deployable Marine Corps that our nation can afford" despite plans to shrink the service from 202,000 to 182,000 active duty troops.
He said additional budget cuts required under a process known as "sequestration" would hit Marine Corps procurement particularly hard compared with personnel costs such as salaries and recruiting, eventually limiting the number of missions that Marines could take on at the same time.
PROCUREMENT ACCOUNTS TO TAKE DISPROPORTIONATE HIT
The service would also have to be more creative about how it equips and trains troops, possibly through pooling equipment, instead of each unit having its own, he added.
"My sense is that I'm not going to be allowed to go below 182,000, so that means my procurement accounts are going to be hit disproportionately and my ability to reset all that equipment coming out of Afghanistan," Amos said.
"The units that go will be the most trained and the most ready, but eventually I'll run out of capacity," he said. "The force that's left behind will be challenged."
Unless U.S. lawmakers act quickly, the Pentagon is facing an additional $500 billion in budget cuts over the next decade, on top of $487 billion in cuts already slated for that time period. The Pentagon's chief weapons buyer told a conference last week that he may have to kill or cut some arms programs, even if Congress delays the automatic cuts.
One big concern is that as currently written, federal law would require the additional budget cuts to be made across-the-board, stripping military leaders of the ability to set their own priorities within budget categories.
"I need to be able to get inside that and do all that internally myself," Amos said.
The Marine Corps' biggest weapons programs include the short-takeoff, vertical lift version of the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35, which the Marines urgently need to replace its fleet of aging F/A-18 fighters and other aircraft, whose maintenance costs are skyrocketing as they get older and older.
"We need the airplane because there isn't a Plan B," said Amos, the first Marine Corps pilot to be tapped as its top leader. The F-35B will replace seven different aircraft models now used by the Marines, saving more than $1 billion in operating costs over the next decade, he said.
The Marine Corps had hoped to begin using the new F-35B jets this year, but a series of program restructurings ordered by Pentagon leaders have pushed that data back by several years.
FIVE-YEAR PROCUREMENT DEAL FOR V-22S AFFECTED
The cuts, expected to amount to around 11 percent, could also delay the Marines' ability to complete fielding of their new tilt-rotor plane, the MV-22 Osprey built by Boeing Co and Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc, Amos said.
The service is poised to sign a second five-year procurement agreement to buy 98 more V-22s, but it will need Congress to include a special exception when it passes a temporary funding measure later this month. Such temporary funding measures or continuing resolutions generally only allow continued work on existing programs and ban the start of any new programs.
If lawmakers refuse to grant the exception, the cost per aircraft will go up, and the Marines will have to delay fielding the last couple of V-22 squadrons, Amos said. That in turn would mean continued operations of the CH-46 helicopters, which are 44 years old and costing more to sustain every day, he said.
Another big challenge will be dealing with all the vehicles and other equipment worn out after more than a decade of war.
About 40 percent of the Marines' total equipment is now in Afghanistan and it all needs to come back to the United States for what military officials call "reset," an expensive and time-consuming process aimed at repairing, upgrading and in some cases replacing equipment.
Decisions on the ratio of repairs to replacements are being closely watched by U.S. defense contractors, who are counting on increased orders for equipment upgrades to help offset a decline in new programs as budget come under increasing pressure.
The Marines have already decided not to replace all 23,000 of their workhouse Humvees, instead buying only 5,000 of the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicles that the Pentagon is trying to develop, and making do with repaired Humvees instead.
"A big chunk of what's coming out of Afghanistan is what I call good enough," Amos said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Gary Hill)