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The United States Marine Corps is set to shed more than 20,000 active duty positions in the coming years and have already commenced a process meant to force some senior officers into an early retirement.

The Marines are on course to cut around 4,000 positions a year through 2017, decreasing the total number of Marines to 182,100 from its peak last year of 202,100, according to a major scale-down order that was quietly issued last year.

The reduction in forces could leave the elite fighting force underprepared to battle multiple regional threats, particularly those in the Middle East, according to military experts.

The impending cuts are independent of the $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts, otherwise known as sequestration, which will take place next month if Congress fails to reach a preventative deal.

“The effect will be that there will not be sufficient Marines available to both be ‘America’s 9-1-1 force’ and to be ready for sustained ground combat,” said Steven Bucci, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who warned that the decreased number of Marines will leave the force overstretched.

“Right now, the Marines are trying to go back to the role of floating about on the three ship Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) missions forward deployed around the world,” Bucci said, referring to a joint Navy and Marine unit that performs sea-to-shore missions. “There was no ARG available to respond to Benghazi [terror attacks] because the Marines have had so many combat units fighting elsewhere.”

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