WASHINGTON: The military is in for another eight years of tight budgets, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos predicted today. The good news is that the relationship between the four Joint Chiefs who craft their budgets and their chairman is “better than it ever has been.”

In his public remarks, the commandant hammered home the point that the Joint Chiefs are confronting austerity shoulder-to-shoulder, without the usual interservice sniping over budget shares and that there is no daylight in particular between the two land forces, Army and the Marines.

“We’re not in competition with our land brothers, we have fought side by side,” Amos emphasized. “The last 11 years has developed relationships and trust between the two services that I don’t think we ever had before,” he said. “It’s the same thing with the Air Force,” as well as with the interservice Special Operations Command (in which Marines did not even participate until Marine Special Operations Command, MARSOC, was established in 2006).

In fact, said Amos, over his 52 months in and around the Pentagon as first assistant Commandant and then Commandant, “the relationshp between the Joint Chiefs has never been better — and I think that’s really healthy as we go into this period of austerity, because we are going to be making some hard choices.”

While relations between the chiefs may be excellent, that doesn’t mean they always all know what the others are doing. After his remarks this morning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Amos admitted to reporters that he had not heard of his Army counterpart Gen. Ray Odierno’s proposal for an “Office of Strategic Landpower” linking the Army, Marines, and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) until an aide mentioned it might come up today. Amos hastened to add that he has sent Marine liaison officers to work with the Army and is all in favor of inter-service synergies.

“I’ve not heard of it,” Amos said of Odierno’s proposal, which the Army chief first publicly mentioned at CSIS last week. “[But] we certainly have the same interests [in] coming together and making sure everybody understands the value of land forces,” he went on. In most conflicts, “at the end of the day you’re probably going to have to occupy some ground,” Amos said. “There are only two forces that do that, his and mine.”

The age of austerity is only getting started, the commandant added. Based on the history of prior post-war drawdowns, measured from the time defense budgets peak and start declining to the time they bottom out and start to rise again, the average duration is about 10 years. “We’re about a year-and-a-half into that right now, maybe two years,” he said — which means the budget picture won’t get better until roughly 2020.

“I’m already taking risk,” Amos said. The current drawdown plan would still leave the Marines 10,000 personnel above their pre-Iraq War strength — at 182,000 active-duty Marines instead of 172,000, he admitted. But, Amos argued, the old Corps was already 6,000 Marines short and it needs another 6,000 Marines to handle new post-9/11 missions, including MARSOC (special operations) and about a thousand “cyber operators.”

All told, theater commanders’ demand for Marine Corps forces “exceeds by about a factor of four what we can provide on a daily basis,” Amos said. “We don’t have enough ships. We don’t have enough forward deployed forces to be able to satisfy the appetite of the combatant commanders.”

That resource crunch affects not only current operations but future investment. “There are some things we absolutely have to modernize,” said Amos. “We’re flying now 40-year-old CH-46 helicopters. We have to modernize those,” replacing them with more capable and more costly V-22 Ospreys. In less urgent areas, the Marine Corps has to make do with “good enough,” as when it reduced its planned purchase of the Humvee replacement, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, from 23,000 to 5,000.

Tight budgets make it all the more important for the Marine Corps to focus on its core mission. “Marines are first and foremost a naval force,” Amos emphasized. “Some would like to see us defined as ground forces [or] a second land army… We are not.”

Indeed, Amos said, “to seriously put a foot print on the ground and do it with some sense of time and endurance, I automatically default to the Army.” In contrast to the Marines’ decade-long ground battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, the service’s historical role is to respond rapidly to a crisis, “set the conditions” for follow-on operations, and then depart for the next crisis, leaving long-term, large-scale presence to the Army.

Marines, Amos said, are “the harbinger, the John the Baptist, of a ground operation,” not the main operation itself.

That said, the commandant could not resist repeating standard Marine arguments about the service’s quality. Noting the new Administration strategy’s emphasis on “low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to advise, train, and assist partner nations, Amos declared that “Marines have long been a security partner of choice: Seabased marines tread lightly on host nation infrastructure and sovereignty” — that is, they mainly operate off ships without needing land bases, unlike, say, the Army.

Nor could Amos resist emphasizing that, in tight budgetary times, “the Marine Corps provides a significant return on investment [and is] the least expensive force in the DoD arsenal” — although that’s largely because it is the smallest of the services numerically and offloads a lot of its logistical, medical, administrative, and acquisition overhead onto the Navy and the Army.

Other than these brief service-specific plugs, however, Amos spent most of his time on the strategic big picture. With the Marine Corps’ 237th birthday on Saturday, he noted that when the service was founded in 1775, “The British Empire struggled with a messy counterinsurgency campaign in the American colonies, [and] soon the French, Spanish and Dutch sought to chip away at the British hegemony, all in a globalizing world. Competitors everywhere sought to take advantage of the weakness of an overstretched power. Sound familiar?”

The unstated good news in that analogy, of course, is that despite its defeat by American insurgents, Great Britain remained the world’s dominant power for another 150 years — thanks in part to its naval forces and marines.