Point of View

McCrory needs to work to halt a potential hit to Camp Lejeune

February 23, 2014 

Every four years the Pentagon reviews our defenses, and Maj. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Marine Corps’ leader this time around, has an important message for North Carolina: “We’re going to stand down the headquarters … currently located at Camp LeJeune” as part of the review scheduled for release this month, “and we’re going to absorb its functions into a sitting, already-existing headquarters that’s up at Norfolk, Virginia.”

Gov. Pat McCrory is sure to oppose this change. States always fight when faced with any loss in their military community, often driven by their taste for the Washington largesse that comes with these forces. That doesn’t have to be the subtext this time. McCrory can work to keep the Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters at Camp LeJeune on the basis of Pentagon management principles that the Marine Corps appears to have ignored.

A few details here are important. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel charged each military service with cutting back on headquarters to save money. It’s a smart move – money saved by managing the back office more efficiently is money that doesn’t have to be taken from our front-line units. Yet this headquarters is part of Camp LeJeune’s fighting force. The one in Virginia is administrative.

Take it from McKenzie. The three U.S. Marine Expeditionary Forces, including the one we host, “are the warfighting headquarters of the Marine Corps. If you go to a major contingency, you’re going to go with a Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters.” The Norfolk-based Marine Forces Command, on the other hand, is part of the Corps’ administrative back office.

This proposal has emerged under the cover of responsible management, but it has all the makings of a bureaucratic power play. Norfolk’s three-star general is better positioned than Camp LeJeune’s two-star general to influence where cuts are made and, on top of that, Marine administrators in Washington have a special interest in looking out for one of their own. A move that transfers headquarters’ functions doesn’t convey much managerial or strategic benefit, yet it would help the three-star in Norfolk insulate his organization from cutbacks.

While North Carolina has a stake in this dispute, the better argument for McCrory draws on the national interest. The Pentagon rightly has made our fighting forces a priority above the back office. McCrory should publicly endorse that priority and then insist that the Marine Corps live up to the same standard.

Two advantages can help McCrory. Procedurally, the Marine Corps’ proposal is not nearly as final as it sounds. The review process that sparked this idea has a tendency to fizzle even within the Pentagon and, even if this idea does stick, Congress can have the final word. McCrory has plenty of opportunity to work with our legislative delegation to get better management from the Marines.

McCrory’s military adviser, retired Marine Maj. Gen. Cornell Wilson, also offers an advantage. Wilson has served as the deputy commander of both the operational headquarters at Camp LeJeune and the administrative organization in Norfolk. These experiences give him a unique ability to engage with the Corps about the bureaucratic politics that seem to have led it astray.

Another potential hit for Camp LeJeune is the Pentagon’s plan to save money through a strategic pivot to the Pacific. The Marine Expeditionary Force we host is the only one not in the Pacific. Gen. James Amos, the Corps’ commandant, wrote in December that Camp LeJeune would contribute disproportionately to personnel reductions.

Specifically, Camp LeJeune is scheduled to shrink by roughly 4,500 more Marine billets than planned. McCrory can help retain some by fighting for the operational headquarters in question, but our national strategy still will call for many Marines to leave.

That cut will be one small yet significant contribution to reducing the country’s debt. North Carolinians, especially McCrory and our congressional delegation, care about fiscal responsibility alongside sustaining the state’s military presence.

Balancing these goals won’t be easy. State leaders can quickly lose their poise when faced with a shrinking military installation, and the parochial reaction they often have compromises their budget stewardship. McCrory can demonstrate his fiscal credentials by accepting strategically grounded reductions at Camp LeJuene while advocating that the Pentagon’s own management principles should roll back the Corps’ headquarters proposal.

Bureaucracy seems to have interfered with the Corps’ thinking. McCrory can do the state and the country a service calling the Washington generals to account.

Matthew Leatherman (@MattLeatherman) is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.

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