By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Marine Corps said on Wednesday it would cut four infantry battalions and 12 flying squadrons over the next five years as it shrinks by 20,000 personnel to meet budget constraints and peacetime needs after more than a decade of war.
The biggest cuts would fall on Marine Corps bases in North Carolina, with Camp Lejeune and the adjacent New River air base losing 5,800 personnel and Cherry Point air base losing another 2,100. Three California Marine bases - Camp Pendleton, 29 Palms and Miramar - would lose a total of 6,000 personnel.
Lieutenant General Richard Mills, head of the Combat Development Command, said the reductions would take place over five years "on a slope as opposed to a cliff" and would take place through "natural attrition," giving Marines a chance to serve out the terms of their contracts.
"The impact on the individual Marine will mostly be through re-enlistments," Mills said. "We're obviously going to ... need fewer Marines, so re-enlistments will tighten up. A Marine is ... really going to have to be professionally qualified, personally qualified and really be top performers to find a slot to stay in the career force."
The cuts are part of the Pentagon's efforts to reduce projected spending by $487 billion over the next decade as called for in a budget agreement last autumn between Congress and President Barack Obama.
The cuts begin to take effect in the budget for the 2013 fiscal year that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled a month ago. The plan calls for $525.4 billion in base defense spending, about $5.1 billion less than approved for 2012. It also seeks $88.5 billion for the war in Afghanistan.
Mills said the force reduction plan would cut the size of the Marine Corps to about 182,100 personnel from the current 202,000 by the end of 2016, keeping it a "middle-weight force capable of being forward deployed, capable of expeditionary operations."
The plan will reduce the number of infantry battalions to 23 from 27 to take account of the smaller size of the force. Aircraft squadrons would be reduced to 58 from the current 70. And three headquarters units also would be cut.
The redesigned Marine Corps force structure would bolster capabilities in some areas as envisioned by a new U.S. military strategy unveiled by Panetta in early January. The strategy calls for a shift in emphasis to the Pacific as well as an increased emphasis on special operations forces.
The Marine Corps plan would only cut 200 personnel in Hawaii. It did not elaborate on how bases in Japan would be affected. Mills said those details were still being worked out.
Mills said the corps would add 250 personnel to improve its strength in cyberspace, put an additional 821 people in the Marine Corps Special Operations Command and add another squadron of unmanned aircraft to the Marine Corps Reserves, bringing the total to two.
"It's a growth industry," Mills said of the demand for U.S. capabilities in cyberspace. "I think that anybody who follows what General (Keith) Alexander is doing up at Cyber Com (Cyber Command) realizes that it's expanding both in its capabilities and its requirement. And the Marine component of that is just following right along."
The Pentagon created the new military command two years ago to build up the military's ability to attack enemy computer networks and develop defenses for critical U.S. computer infrastructure.
(Editing by Eric Beech)