WASHINGTON - At 3:15 a.m. on Election Day, Nov. 6, Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, was wide awake. He was sitting at a computer, firing off emails from his home office, deeply concerned about the future of the Marine Corps.
It's not the combat readiness or the courage of the men and women that wear the Marine uniform that keeps him up at night.
"They're doing great. And they're doing great in Afghanistan right now and I feel very good about where that's going," said Amos.
It's apprehension about looming budget cuts that keep him up at night.
"I'm concerned, right now, over the next couple of years about my ability to be able to shepherd the Marine Corps, as the commandant through these times, these budget times," said Amos in an interview at the Pentagon.
His worry comes with good reason.
The Pentagon was ordered in 2011, by virtue of the Budget Control Act of 2011, to make $487 billion in cuts. And unless the Obama administration and Congress can agree on how to further trim the federal budget before the end of 2012, automatic, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration will force the military to give up another $500 billion.
That, according to Amos, would hit the Marines harder than any other service.
"Because we're the smallest of all the services, and we only have 8 percent of the Department of Defense budget, when cuts come down, even though they are levied proportionally, it has a disproportionate effect on the Marine Corps," said Amos.
The end result could force the Marines to cancel programs.
But Amos declares, "The one thing I will not do is build a hollow Marine Corps."
One of his goals is to make sure that when called upon, the Marines, which he often refers to as "America's shock force," doesn't just answer the call.
"We will have a high state of readiness, our combat forces will be ready to go today, and they will be equipped with 100 percent of the equipment that they need. And they'll have 100 percent of the money they need to get ready," said Amos.
But in order to do that he's going to have to make cuts.
"It could be in my bases and stations, which could be painful," he said.
"We are not a large organization, we don't have a significant amount of bases around America and throughout the world, but they do cost money."
Education and training is already suffering and could take a further hit.
"It does cost money to send people TAD (Temporary Assigned Duty) to conferences. We've cut our conferences, by about 90 percent, our travel has been cut back easily by about 50 percent," he said.
Also, he said they will "look at extending Marines from three-year tours to four- year tours. "
While doing whatever it takes to keep the Marines on the cutting edge of readiness, Amos warned, if this period of austerity is extended, "sooner or later that chicken is going to come to roost."
Using another metaphor, he compared the belt-tightening that sequestration would force to constantly repairing the parts on an aging car.
Sooner or later it will breakdown.
With 40 years of flying fighter jets in his rear-view, the tough veteran, whose service reaches back to the later years of the Vietnam War, has seen enough change to know that it's happening again -- right now.
"The world order is changing, so it's affecting the United States of America and so we're coming out of Afghanistan after being tied up for 11 years in nothing but straight combat. So there's going to be changes," he said.
While those changes are taking place, the Marine Corps is going to have to reset itself.
Amos said the Marines are going to collect all of their equipment in Afghanistan after the war is over, the Corps is going to slim down to 182,100 and prepare for its next challenge as the U.S. "pivots" toward the Asia Pacific region.
Amos and other military leaders acknowledge the continuing budget cuts have forced them to do more with less, but eventually, because of the global political fluctuations taking place, observers say that trend is going to have to be reversed or at the very least stopped cold.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)