Looking ahead to 2016: US Marine Corps

What to
in 2016

All eyes are on the Marine Corps as a new commandant looks to navigate through challenges that will shape the future of the Marines. From integrating women into infantry battalions to planning the future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, the Marines have a busy year ahead.


Women in the infantry

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened all military jobs to women, and while the ruling applies to every branch of service, none has opposed the move more than the Marine Corps.

In September, the Marine Corps released a summary of a $36 million study looking into the effectiveness of women in combat arms roles. The report concluded that women were at significantly higher risk for injury, were less accurate when firing weapons and less capable of lifting heavy objects.

While that report has since come under fire for its methodology it has remained a lightning rod for detractors of the move to integrate women into modern infantry units.

This move will open more than 30,000 individual positions within the Marine Corps to women.

Regardless, top Marine officials say the Corps has received its marching orders and will spend much of 2016 integrating the once male-only job fields.

"We have a decision. It’s time to move out," new Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller said Dec. 4 during a video address to the troops.

A plan to integrate women into these new roles is expected on Carter’s desk in early January.

Photo courtesy Ida Irby/U.S. Marine Corps

A new commandant

When Gen. Joseph Dunford was promoted to the 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Robert B. Neller found himself in control of a Marine Corps facing some of its largest cultural shifts in its 240-year history.

Not only will Neller oversee the integration of women into combat arms, but he’ll also guide the Corps as it returns to garrison life. As the war in Afghanistan winds down and deployment opportunities dry up, the peacetime Corps — a situation dreaded by many of the troops — has returned.

In his 2015 vision for the Corps, Dunford emphasized training and finding new uses for the Marines’ expeditionary nature.

"While we emphasize the resourcing of our forward-deployed forces to meet the combatant commanders’ requirements, it is equally important that our nondeployed forces are ready to respond quickly and successfully to the unexpected," Dunford said.

Upon taking over command in September, Neller promised that he’d issue his follow-up to that guidance no later than the New Year.

Marines expect that guidance to have a substantial impact on direction of the Corps in 2016 and beyond.

Photo courtesy William Hester/U.S. Marine Corps

Futenma’s future in limbo

Someday, the U.S. might actually be able to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and move thousands of Marines north to Camp Schwab. Whether the long-planned, long-delayed project to build a runway at Schwab will get untracked in 2016 is unclear.

For nearly 20 years, Tokyo and Okinawa officials have battled over the plan, which will also allow the U.S. to relocate thousands of Marines to Guam.

The sticking point, for many Okinawans, is the fact that too many Marines would remain on their island. "Even after 70 years, 74 percent of U.S. military bases in Japan are located on Okinawa, which accounts for only 0.6 percent of the total land surface of the country," Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga told Stars and Stripes in October. "The central government has little understanding of the painful experiences suffered by the people of Okinawa."

For now, the runway construction is in limbo. Onaga recently revoked a work permit that would have allowed for the construction. The Japanese government has since filed a lawsuit to dismiss Onaga’s revocation.

At this point, the future of the plan is in the court’s hands.

Photo courtesy Carlos Cruz Jr./U.S. Marine Corps

Career incentives

The Corps has $56 million in re-enlistment bonuses to hand out, most of which will go to just a handful of military occupational specialties.

Some jobs, including counterintel and critical skills operators, are offering noncommissioned officers re-enlistment bonuses upward of $56,000.

Marines can expect a mixed bag in other career fields.

For instance, officer force-shaping incentives are also drying up. The temporary early retirement authority – a program offering early outs for O-3s through O-5s – will shrink in scope.

Previously, 26 jobs were eligible for the program, but that number will be reduced to eight in the new year.

On the good news front, enlisted-to-officer programs are steadily increasing. Over the past three years, 111 enlisted Marines made the jump to officer, and Marine Corps Recruiting Command is hoping that 150 troops make the transition in 2016.

On the pay front, Marines and their other service branch brethren will get a 1.3 percent pay raise, a slight increase over the past few years.

Photo courtesy Vanessa Austin/U.S. Marine Corps

Tackling sexual assault issue

Sexual assault and harassment remains a problem for the Marine Corps, even more so than the other branches of service.

Nearly 8 percent of women Marines report being assaulted during their careers, according to a 2014 Department of Defense and Rand Corp. review of sexual assault among servicemembers. That sits in stark contrast to the Air Force, where the number is closer to 3 percent.

The majority of assaults occur in the lower enlisted ranks — the troops the Corps puts the greatest focus on retaining.

In May, the Department of Defense released reports stating that every branch will have to do more to prevent both sexual assault and retaliation by superiors against uniformed victims. (LINK: http://www.stripes.com/news/us/little-progress-in-countering-perceptions-of-retaliation-in-sexual-assault-reporting-1.343944)

“The report makes it crystal clear that we have to do more,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at the time.

As the Marine Corps integrates women into previously male-only battalions, expect more focus in 2016 on preventative measures across the board.

Photo courtesy Eric Keenan/U.S. Marine Corps

Manning and end strength concerns

The Marine Corps continues to shrink, but not as quickly as previously announced by the Defense Department.

During the Iraq troop surge, there were roughly 202,000 Marines – a number that was supposed to dwindle to some 174,000 as part of sequestration.

Then in March 2015, the numbers were readjusted to 182,000, and revised again to 184,000 in the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

These fluctuating numbers have created some uncertainty among the troops. Will there still be room for them in the Marine Corps? Will force-shaping measures, such as the voluntary enlisted early release program, continue past 2016?

The changing numbers have also caused a dearth of qualified noncommissioned and senior noncommissioned officers, according to the 2015 Commandant’s Planning Guidance.

"We will address the current gaps in NCO and SNCO leadership by revamping our current manpower management and readiness reporting models, systems, policies and processes," the guidance stated.

What policies will be affected and when remains to be seen.

Photo courtesy Dalton Precht/U.S. Marine Corps

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