Feature Photo: U.S. Marine Corps video by Lance Corporal Taryn McKenzie/Released

Heading into 2014, the state of defense is solidly ill-defined and in flux. And the brass knows it.
By Kevin Baron

Just about every top military leader has at once touted U.S. military dominance while warning that politics and spending cuts are hollowing out the forces. Now, there’s little clarity about what to do with those forces after the wars. If the message of 2013 was budget uncertainty, the message of 2014 seems to be mission uncertainty. The war in Afghanistan is finally ending. What comes next?

U.S. soldiers train in the Sinagpore jungle // Army Photo

On one hand, there’s the United States military that’s the best-equipped, trained and ready to fight in world history. On the other hand is a military that, if you listen to Pentagon leaders and the national security echo chamber, is constantly telling Congress and the American people that the United States faces a state of dire emergency, under-funded, under-manned, under-equipped for the global security mandate it’s been given.

If past is prologue, just look at how the Pentagon closed out 2013 before you try and read into 2014. Despite demands that a post-2014 troop deal for Afghanistan be in place by the end of the year, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai – a U.S. ally, mind you – says he won’t sign it. Like many Americans, Karzai is questioning why U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan after 13 years of war. And when proof emerged that Syrian President Bashir al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, President Barack Obama couldn’t get enough support to launch a military strike against him.

Talk about war weariness.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Defense One Summit. // DOD Photo

The top military officer and senior military advisor to the president says the country needs a conversation to define “the purpose of the military.” He’s right.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos is promising Congress that he will maintain that service as America’s on-call, ready to roll, anytime, anywhere emergency force with tens of thousands fewer troops and billions fewer dollars. But if sequester hits again and the Marines are called to just a single contingency fight, there will be no Marines left behind to rotate in and out of that conflict.

Meanwhile, the Navy publicly shrunk its ship requirement to 300 ships and says it’s ready to push Obama’s pivot to the Pacific. But privately you can’t throw a pebble into the Pentagon food court without hitting an admiral who thinks the Navy would need 900 ships to do everything defense leaders expect of the Navy on paper.

DOD investments chart

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., sits on a runway in American Samoa // U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jon Polka

So which is it – can the Pentagon be on call, any time, ready to roll? Or is the military facing one of the biggest reality deficits with its civilian leaders since they rolled into Iraq with shock and awe in mind but got quag and mire, instead?

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told officers at the National Defense University this month: “I'm going to increase my commitment to have a conversation with our national leaders and the American people about the purpose of the military, not only in times of war but in peacetime as well.” Hear that? The top military officer and senior military advisor to the president says the country needs a conversation to define “the purpose of the military.” He’s right.

Dempsey, who carries laminated photos of soldiers he lost under his command in the Iraq war, has reason to re-examine how the military should be used in the next era. One purpose: to train other countries to fight their own battles so that the U.S. doesn’t have to.

Take Syria. Dempsey leads many officers who have given Obama options for using the military to save Syria. The top option to date: stay out of it. At the Pentagon, the policy is containment. As long as Syria’s conflict remains within Syria, no Americans should get in the way. No U.S. boots on that ground. Instead, Dempsey and others offer up training and equipment for some rebels and focused on shoring up the borders of Turkey and Jordan.

Take Fallujah. Al-Qaeda fighters recently took the Iraqi city that U.S. forces twice fought so hard to secure. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who commanded the Iraq war, said the U.S. should “wait and see” what Iraqis can do to retake Fallujah before any Americans are sent back to the fabled sandbox.

  • An F-16 from the South Carolina Air National Guard takes off from Nellis Air Force Base before a training exercise // Air Force Photo

  • A soldier on a dismounted patrol in Nangahar province in Afghanistan // Army Photo

  • An amphibious assault vehicle on a training mission in Thailand // Marine Corps Photo

  • The USS Nimitz // Navy Photo

  • An F-16 Fighting Falcon // Air Force Photo

  • A UH46 drops Marines off at Camp Pendleton // Marine Corps Photo

  • A group of Marines land on a beach with the Royal Thai Army during the Cobra Gold 2012 Exercises // Marine Corps Photo

  • The USS Cape St. George, USS Momsen and USS Sterett underway during a training exercise in the Pacific Ocean // Navy Photo

The Pentagon hasn’t entirely lost its taste for intervention. Five years ago, when the Pentagon stood up a dedicated Africa Command, the U.S. swatted away concerns of the “militarization” of Africa. But the U.S. has positioned additional forces closer to Africa and is involved in more countries there than ever. From small bands of advisors to rapid reaction forces, the past year saw U.S. Marines in Uganda, soldiers in South Sudan and Air Force cargo planes moving French fighters in Mali. This month, the U.S. flew Rwandan troops and equipment from Uganda into the Central African Republic.

There’s the U.S. military that spends twice as much as every Asian military combined, but then there’s the one that we’re told is dangerously fielding the smallest number of ships since World War II. The one with the most and most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, or the one with the most aging fleet that desperately needs a new plan to replace dozens of aircraft with something other than the trillion-dollar catchall F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. There’s the military that is building cyber defense forces slower than it needs, or the one that’s building M-1 Abrams tanks it doesn’t want.

There’s the military that spent three years begging political leadership in Congress and the White House to stop mandatory sequester cuts because they would be “catastrophic,” but when the cuts came, the same military said they still would be able to protect the nation.

There’s the Army that Odierno said is not able to respond to any new contingency beyond planned-for major wars. Last fall, he said, “Right now in the Army, we have two brigades that are trained. Two.” There’s the Air Force that said the flight hours for training that were lost by sequester cuts would risk the lives of combat pilots, and the Air Force that hasn’t fought a dogfight since Bosnia.

There’s the military that proclaims a crucial pivot to Asia is upon us, but is shifting only a handful of ships and personnel to that region. The military that boasts loudly of positioning in Singapore four littoral combat ships -- the ship of the future -- and then cuts nearly half of the Navy’s order of LCSs before the second ship makes it out of U.S. waters.

There’s the military that says the war years are over as it rapidly expands special operations fighters into Africa. There’s the military that says al-Qaeda is growing but has been defeated. There’s the military keeping open vital economic sea lanes in the South China Sea with warships, but that won’t step foot in Syria. Or Fallujah. Or the Congo.

There’s the military that says the defense industry must adapt to a new era beyond massive ground warfare and lower its budgets for weapons buying, and the military that pumps billions into Cold War-era hardware like nuclear-armed submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The USS McCampbell, assigned to Yokosuka, Japan, fires two missiles during an exercise // U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devon Dow

There’s the military that still says it’s promise of a paycheck and benefits to those Americans who volunteer their lives is unbreakable, or the military that tells Congress it must change those benefits or break the Pentagon’s half-trillion dollar bank.

At the Defense One Summit last November, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he views the military as just one component of government, working closely with everyone from the Department of Homeland Security to FEMA to advance U.S. interests. Asked to define the role of the U.S. military in the new era, Hagel went on for some time without much definition.

“I know I'm taking a long time on this answer, but I think there are a lot of components to the answer. And I don't think it's a glib yes, no, maybe, this is our role. We have many roles, but the primary role is a security and defense of this country,” he said. “We are a tool, we are part of, as I said earlier, the larger structure of government.”

“I think we should [use the military] in a judicious, careful, wise way when we think it's clearly in our interests,” Hagel said, ultimately.

So, what is the state of defense? You tell me.

What follows is a deeper look at the state of the U.S. military services and the challenges they face this year. Continue the conversation with us at #StateofDefense.

of the Army

By Stephanie Gaskell


Feature Photo: U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Alex Flynn

After fighting two major ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is undergoing its biggest transformation since the end of World War II.

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kandahar province in Afghanistan // Army Photo

This month, FOX debuted Enlisted, a new sitcom about a ragtag Army platoon in the post-war era led by an Afghanistan war veteran. The show is fiction, of course, but it reflects a throwback in public perception – and a new reality – of what life is like in the Army once again, back on base.

There are currently about 37,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, most of them soldiers. Whether there is a post-2014 presence or not, the majority of them will come home by the end of the year. Many will think twice about re-enlisting as the Army shrinks and readjusts to the evolving threats around the world. Most likely will never see combat again.

Instead of surges and counterinsurgency tactics, the post-war Army is focused on budget cuts and force structure changes. A renewed focus on tattoos and uniform regulations has replaced some of the relaxed standards set during the height of the wars, when the military needed all the help it could get. Soldiers are increasingly worried about cuts to military benefits and involuntary separation orders as the active-duty Army shrinks, possibly as low as 420,000, from a war-time high of 570,000.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno // Army Photo

Instead of surges and counter-insurgency tactics, the post-war Army is focused on budget cuts and force structure changes.

“The Army is going to have to move to 490,000 by the end of FY15 instead of FY17. We sped that up to better balance everything,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said earlier this month. The Army is currently at about 527,000, he said. “We will go down to 510,000 by the end of this year. Then by the end of FY15, we will go down to 490,000. Then we will have to make decisions about where we go from there.”

Size of the army chart

Other changes are under way for the Army’s force structure. Five brigade combat teams will be cut this year. And armored and infantry brigade combat teams will return to a three-battalion configuration, after moving to two to better align with the needs of combat. Some units are becoming more regionally aligned so that soldiers can capitalize on localized expertise. “What we will do is we will assign our forces to [regional] commands. Most of the forces within the United States will be aligned with CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command],” Odierno said. “We will use them in an expeditionary manner in order for us to go forward in building security capabilities around the world.”

U.S. and Japanese soldiers train together during Orient Shield, an annual exercise // Army Photo

After CENTCOM, which covers the Middle East, one of the declared major missions for the Army in 2014 is the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. There are currently about 86,000 Army soldiers assigned to Pacific Command. “In the years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of these soldiers that were assigned to PACOM were off in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year we stopped that. So they are all back in the Pacific region conducting these operations. That is what the rebalance is,” Odierno said.

The Army is trying many angles to claim a big chunk of the pivot. One familiar talking point from Army leaders is that most Pacific nations that the Pentagon wants to train up and stay close with have large armies, not navies or air forces, requiring a large U.S. Army presence to match. But beyond traditional training and humanitarian assistance, there’s a simmering debate about what the U.S. Army really will ever do in the Pacific in the next 20, 50 or 100 years. Will U.S. soldiers land in waves across China as an invading or occupying force? Or lead a charge into North Korea with tanks and Bradleys? Or will they more likely be asked conduct humanitarian evacuations (like typhoon relief) and build partnerships and conduct counterinsurgency and stability operations?

  • Soldiers train in the Joint Cyber Control Center during Operation Deuce Lightning // Army Photo

  • U.S. and Malawi soldiers take part in a joint exercise in sub-Saharan Africa // DOD Photo

Female soldiers stand guard in Afghanistan // Army Photo

Cybersecurity and technology will be another priority for the Army this year, as it tries to become lighter and more expeditionary. At a briefing on a recent war game for 2030, Army officials stressed the need to upgrade equipment, especially communications and unmanned ground vehicles, to reduce the reliance on bulky logistics support units. Several prototypes for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle will be tested this year.

Standards for specific military occupation specialties will be set this year for women in combat, and the fight against sexual assault in the military will continue in Congress. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wants to remove the chain of command from sexual assault cases, against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Army’s main mission, however, will be to do all of this in the new era of the Pentagon’s ever-shrinking budget. The days of “blank-check” warfighting are over as the majority of Americans want to focus on problems at home, rather than fight long, “nation-building” wars abroad. The Army is relying more on special forces to conduct smaller, more expeditionary counter-terrorism operations, especially in places like Africa and the Middle East. The Army may be returning to garrison, but the fight against terrorism is far from over.

State of
the Navy

By Carlo Muñoz


Feature Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ricardo R. Guzman

The Navy must balance its strategic mission for the post-war era with budget realities.

This year, the Navy will attempt to salvage its long-term fleet strategy and future force from fiscal realities facing all of the armed services right now.

The USS Louisville moored alongside the USS Emory S. Land during a deployment in Malaysia // Navy Photo

Recall that the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan anticipates the service topping out at 300 warships over the next five years, compared to previous shipbuilding plans that called for a minimum fleet of 313 ships. To get there, Navy leaders plan to spend an average of $15.1 billion per year over the next five years to float 66 submarines, 11 aircraft carriers and 32 amphibious landing ships.

That submarine force will be a mix of ballistic and cruise missile subs, including the new nuclear-powered Virginia-class boat and the Ohio-class replacement submarine, dubbed the SSBN-X. Alongside those vessels will be 145 large and small multi-mission warships, including the Navy's newest and most advanced warship, the littoral combat ship, or LCS. The Navy claims its projected fleet is necessary as the United States shifts away from the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have dominated the Pentagon's focus over the past decade and toward the vast open seas and skies in the Pacific and elsewhere.

Sailors stand aboard the deck of the USS Makin Island as it passes through the San Bernadino Straits // Navy Photo

"We will maintain a credible and modern sea-based strategic deterrent … [and] maximize foreign presence to the extent we can using ready deployed forces," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told Congress in November.

Maintaining that credible deterrent is a top priority in Asia, U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear said Thursday at the Pentagon. The Asia-Pacific region is increasingly becoming "the most militarized region in the world," he said. Along with China's ongoing military buildup, other regional powers such as Japan, Australia and Singapore are amassing formidable arsenals of advanced weaponry.

U.S. concerns over that buildup are not only limited to the quantity of weapons being stockpiled by allies and potential adversaries in the Pacific, but the types of weapons those countries are buying.

U.S. concerns over that buildup are not only limited to the quantity of weapons being stockpiled by allies and potential adversaries in the Pacific, but the types of weapons those countries are buying, he added.

"They are buying weapons, 21st century weapons," Locklear said, that could at some point in the future challenge American military dominance in the region. Still, he said, the ongoing buildup "is not something to be afraid of, but something to be pragmatic about.”

Locklear wants to ensure that U.S. forces in the region "maintain the type of [military] edge" that can keep rising regional players in check. For the Navy, specifically, that means delivering on the service's future shipbuilding plan.

A Sea Hawk helicopter prepares to land aboard the USS Freedom // Navy Photo

Navy leaders plan to spend an average of $15.1 billion per year over the next five years to float 66 submarines, 11 aircraft carriers and 32 amphibious landing ships.

Privately, it’s not hard to find admirals who believe a vastly larger and more expensive naval fleet is necessary to truly support President Barack Obama’s global security wishes. But throughout 2013 and into 2014, the Navy has charted several different courses for alternative budget plans – for a smaller, not bigger, service – to meet across-the-board spending cuts imposed by sequestration.

The Navy’s fiscal 2015 budget request expected this February will be the first time Navy leaders fully account for the sequestration. Those reductions will cut military spending by an estimated $52 billion in 2014 and a total of $500 billion over the next decade.

But the fight to keep the future fleet intact could run into serious interference this year on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are angry at Navy planners who now expect to spend far more than what they originally asked Congress to provide for the scaled-back fleet.

An amphibious assault vehicle returns to the USS Gunston Hall after a deployment to the Carribean and Latin America // Army Photo

  • Congressman Randy Forbes, R-Va., speaks at the U.S. Naval Institute // Photo by U.S. Naval Institute

  • Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz. // AP Photo

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert // Navy Photo

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a House Armed Services Committee member and longtime Navy ally from coastal Virginia, called the Navy's plan unachievable under sequestration. “We cannot run the U.S. Navy on fantasy [numbers]," Forbes told Navy leaders last August. Other key, pro-Navy lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have expressed similar doubts.

But the trends are not in Forbes’ favor. Small leaks are already beginning to emerge within the Navy's shipbuilding strategy as Pentagon and service leaders put the final touches on their fiscal 2015 spending request. In early January, the Office of Management and Budget ordered Navy leaders to slash the proposed LCS buy from 52 ships down to 32 in its proposal. While the Navy had proposed a 24-ship cut to the LCS program back in September, service leaders vehemently pushed back against the ship reduction request from the White House.

“We have a valid requirement for 52 ships, and the program is performing strongly,” Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley told reporters this month. “So the Navy’s position on the LCS program is that it is solid."

Deployable navy ships chart

For the rest of the Navy, given a smaller fleet and force but an expanding mission – at least in the Pacific – the biggest challenge may be explaining and convincing to Congress and the American public exactly what the service needs and what it will have to live without.

State of
the Air Force

By Stephanie Gaskell

Air Force

Feature Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld

After more than a decade of up-tempo operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force is shrinking and its mission is changing. The question is: How is this affecting morale?

The Air Force is facing several challenges this year as it tries to maintain readiness and modernize while shrinking the size of the force to comply with budget cuts. The service is facing personnel cuts of up to 25,000 and could lose more than 500 aircraft due to budget cuts. But one of its greatest challenges will be to change the perception that there’s a morale problem within the ranks.

image description

It's not just compensation that keeps people in the military. It’s mission.

Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning

Air Force Photo

F-22s fly in formation // Air Force Photo

Thirty-four officers overseeing land-based nuclear missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were just suspended for cheating, or failing to report it, on crucial aptitude tests. The scandal came to light because several of the officers were being investigated for drug use. Last month, an Air Force general responsible for nuclear weapons was dismissed for being drunk on an official trip to Moscow. And last year, the Air Force removed 17 officers in charge of nuclear missiles at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota after finding several safety violations. A recent RAND study found “burnout” among the top complaints among service members working in the nuclear mission force.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James // AP Photo

The problem doesn’t stop there. After sequestration grounded several squadrons last year, the Air Force began offering its pilots payments of $25,000 per year as an incentive to stay on, up to a maximum of $250,000. But “pilots aren’t taking them,” Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning recently told Defense One. And budget cuts have put limits not only on operations, but investments in new aircraft platforms. “That will have a worse effect on morale” than pay and benefits issues, Fanning said. “It’s not just compensation that keeps people in the military. It’s mission.”

Now, even the Air Force’s basic mission is uncertain, as a once-unthinkable question has been put on the table in Washington: Does the United States even need a separate Air Force? Privately, Air Force officials nervously scoff at the suggestion. But nobody’s suggesting the U.S. could make do without the Army, Navy or Marine Corps. That the question is even making rounds amid think tanks and cocktail conversations is a telling sign that the Air Force needs to define its post-war purpose, and soon.

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Air Force Photo

Newly appointed Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who has been on the job for about a month, spoke with Defense One to discuss the state of the service and the task she faces. Not surprisingly, James said one of her main focuses this year will be on people. “The first priority for me is always taking care of people,” she said. “And so what that means to me for the Air Force is we need to really, really double down our focus on recruiting and retaining and, indeed, shaping the force for the near future as well as looking for the long term.”

James disagrees that there’s a morale problem in the Air Force. But the coming contraction will require hard choices. She explained: “It may be that we have too many people in one category of a job and not enough in another, so somehow you’ve got to get that balance correctly done and that’s everything from allowing some people the opportunity to retrain into a new field. It may be that you have to recruit from the civilian world more. I mean, there’s a whole series of techniques here. We’re going to do as much voluntary as possible, but if we don’t get the numbers we need, we would move to involuntary.”

  • An F-35 Lightning II // Air Force Photo

  • A computer rendering of the proposed KC-46A tanker refueling an F-35 Lightning II fighter jet // Air Force Photo

An A-10 Thunderbolt II // Air Force Photo

Getting readiness levels back up is another priority this year. “The readiness has suffered as of late,” she said. “Last year, in particular, was worrisome. We had to stand down a lot of units that didn’t have the opportunity to practice and fly, hone their skills, so getting those readiness levels up to a higher level, that’s going to be a top job for me to work on.”

Air Force budget request chart

The Air Force is focusing on three major programs to modernize existing aircraft: the new tanker, the new strategic bomber and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The struggle to keep A-10s flying is ongoing, although Congress just passed legislation keeping the popular ground combat support planes flying at least through 2014. “We need to continue to lead the pack in terms of technology and innovation cause that’s very much part of our culture, it’s what gives us our edge,” James said.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, there will likely be a post-2014 mission for the Air Force helping to build up Afghanistan’s air defenses, but it will be small. The original plan to stand up an Afghan air force was drafted through 2016. The force also has a large role to play in the rebalance to Asia – not least of which is China’s recent declaration of an air defense identification zone. But even amid the “pivot” debate, the Air Force’s role is not nearly as present as the Navy, Marine Corps and Army. Today, only one of the U.S. military’s thirteen four-star combatant commanders is an Air Force general.

Despite all the challenges ahead, James said the state of the Air Force “is very strong and it’s getting better. It’s trending upward. What I mean by that is, we’re the best Air Force in the entire world and we’re going to keep it that way. There’s change and challenge that certainly is on our horizon, but there’s lots and lots of opportunity as well. So I’m extremely optimistic about the future.”

State of
the Marines

By Carlo Muñoz


Feature Photo: III Marine Expeditionary Force / Marine Corps Installations by Lance Cpl. Mark Stroud

The Marine Corps will be faced once again with doing more with less this year.

The Marine Corps are facing an uphill fight heading into 2014, as budget pressures tied to the Obama administration's sequestration plan will force the Corps to do more with less -- less troops, less training and less equipment -- just as service leaders are preparing to shift fire from the battlefields of Afghanistan to Asia, Africa and elsewhere across the globe.

President Barack Obama // White House Photo

Branded by senior service leaders as the U.S. military's go anywhere, do anything "middleweight" force, the Marine Corps is already drawing down to a 182,000-man total force from about 202,000 in order to pay its share of the Pentagon’s 10-year cut of $487 billion required by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The services and the Pentagon are also facing an additional $500 billion in cuts under the White House's sequestration plan, which if fully implemented, would drive down the Corps’ total numbers even further -- down to an estimated 174,000-man force, according to service leaders.

Pentagon and service leaders anticipate those first rounds of cuts to be included in the Pentagon's fiscal year 2015 budget plan, due to Capitol Hill this February.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos // Marine Corps Photo

My priorities have remained consistent: first and foremost, the near-term readiness of our forward-deployed forces

Gen. James Amos, commandant

A Marine conducts a counterinsurgency operation in Newa District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan // Marine Corps Photo

Even with the Marine Corps' minimal presence in the final year of the U.S. war in Afghanistan -- only 5,000 Marines remain on the ground in the southern part of the country -- the proposed total force numbers projected for the Corps under sequestration may still not be enough to support the service's future missions.

“The 174,000 force accepts great risk when our nation commits itself to the next major theater war," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee late last year. "Under sequestration, we will effectively lose a Marine division's worth of combat power. This is a Marine Corps that would deploy to a major contingency, fight and not return until the war was over. We will empty the entire bench. There would be no rotational relief.”

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Marine Corps Photo

Buying fewer weapons, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Joint Light Combat Vehicle, will help pay the Marines’ share of the sequestration bill. With fewer pilots in the ranks, the Marines simply would not need as many F-35 jets in the arsenal, according to service leaders. That’s convenient, given the Marine Corps’ short take off and vertical landing version of the jet has experienced the most difficulty throughout the F-35 testing and development program.

The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, a joint Army and Marine Corps effort to build a replacement for the venerable Humvee combat truck, has such skyrocketing cost estimates and ever-changing development deadlines that the vehicle is squarely in the crosshairs of Marine Corps budget officials.

“My priorities have remained consistent: first and foremost, the near-term readiness of our forward-deployed forces…but this readiness comes at the expense of [equipment] sustainment and modernization,” Amos told Congress. “This is unsustainable and it can't continue over the long term.”

A UH-1Y Venom helicopter on a training mission in Australia // Marine Corps Photo

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A Libyan man walks through the burned remains of the U.S. consulte in Benghazi, Libya // AP Photo

These troop, training and equipment cuts slated to begin this year come as the Corps is poised to take on new and more demanding missions across the globe. State Department officials were forced to shutter several embassies and consulates in the Mideast and Africa, due to slew of pending terror threats from al Qaeda factions in the region over the course of last year. As a result, lawmakers agreed to include funding for 1,000 additional Marines to the service's embassy security force, assigned to protect American diplomatic outposts across the globe. At the same time, in response to the deadly attack on an American compound in Benghazi, Libya, the Pentagon deployed additional Marines and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft across the Atlantic to be closer to Africa for rapid response. Most recently, Marines stationed with U.S Africa Command were deployed to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, tasked with guarding against potential threats to U.S. personnel and facilities stemming from the recent unrest in South Sudan. But with the sequester-driven funding cuts to Marine Corps units taken into account, it remains unclear whether that additional funding set aside by Congress will be enough to back the embassy security force.

In Asia, Marines stationed in Okinawa, Japan, already are scheduled to redeploy to bases in Guam and a new outpost in Australia as part of the Pentagon's new and constantly evolving Pacific strategy. The base in Darwin is expected to house 2,500 Marines once fully staffed. But as the Marine Corps continue to feel the fiscal effects from sequestration, the cash-strapped service may have a difficult time getting those Pacific plans off the ground.

Marine Corps Photo

But aside from future operations in Asia, Africa, the Mideast and elsewhere, the biggest fight in 2014 facing the Marine Corps will be the budget battle with Congress and making its fiscal case to a weary American public, exhausted after over a decade of war.

A Special Forces soldier scans a village in Kandahar province in Afghanistan // Army Photo

What do you think?

President Obama’s State of the Union speech will reflect a nation that is clearly at a crossroads as it enters a new era in national security.

Most, if not all, troops will come home from Afghanistan after fighting America’s longest war. Whether the military can remain ready to respond to any crisis, anywhere while cutting manpower and equipment remains to be seen. Whether the United States should keep such a force at the ready, is another question. Tensions in the Middle East continue to escalate and garner attention as military leaders try to shift attention to Asia and the Pacific. Americans and Pentagon leaders want nothing to do with another Middle Eastern war. But the mission persists to prevent terrorism from leaking from the Middle East into Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, threatening American economic interests. The battles that will matter most this year will be fought between the White House, the Pentagon, the services and Capitol Hill as the nation's national security leadership look to reshape and resize roughly half a trillion dollars in annual military spending to reflect the nation’s weariness for more war and intervention.

What do you think is the state of defense? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter at #StateofDefense.

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