Attrition: Too Few Good Men


December 8, 2012: The U.S. Marine Corps is having a hard time reducing its strength from 202,000 to 182,000. At first recruiting efforts were cut, reenlistment bonuses were eliminated and standards for reenlisting were increased. This did not get the job done. With a recession on too many first term marines wanted to stay in and too many well qualified, but unemployed, people wanted to get in.

So now the marines are using some more painful methods. For example, marine sergeants (E-5) now have to get promoted to E-6 before their tenth year of service. Previously it had been 13 years. This hurts because several hundred good marine NCOs are liable to be lost. The marines, like the other services, has long applied the “up or out” policy (if you are not promoted within so many years, you cannot stay in). The marines are also offering early retirement to officers with less than 20 years. Again, this gets rid of people the marines would sorely need if there were another war. But now the battle the marines must win is getting strength down by 20,000.

This order to shed good people was pretty sudden. Last year, just as the marines were completing their expansion (ordered by Congress) from 180,000 to 202,000, they were told that the expansion must be reversed. The size of their reserve force (39,600) remains the same. Since the marines have, for the past few years, suffered shortages of NCOs and junior officers, there would be continued efforts to keep all these experienced leaders in service. But with fewer combat tours, and combat losses, the NCO and junior officer shortages ebbed. Being away from the family was no longer such a big problem, nor was coming home crippled or dead.

The eight percent personnel reduction was helped along by disbanding some units. Marine combat troops are being reduced 13 percent. This means an 11 percent reduction in infantry, 20 percent reduction in artillery troops, and 20 percent reduction in armor troops. There will also be a 13 percent cut among civilian employees. The number of infantry battalions is being reduced from 27 to 24.

There will be some expansions. More troops will be assigned to support units for marine special operations units (assigned to SOCOM). There will be an increase in the size of Cyber War specialists and at least three battalions of law enforcement support battalions.

The marines have plenty of experience with reductions like this. After World War II, the marines were ordered to cut strength from 475,000 to 75,000 and do it by 1950. Just as the marines finished those cuts, the Korean War broke out and the Cold War got a lot warmer. By 1955, strength was back up to 200,000. Then it dipped but shortly went up during Vietnam in the 1960s. Then it came down a bit in the 1970s and managed to keep it at around 180,000-200,000 until the present.