Traffic at Fort Meade

Proposed cuts to military spending may have a trickle-down impact on Maryland-based government contractors, such as those based at Fort Meade. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun / October 17, 2013)

The Army would shrink to its lowest troop levels since just before World War II under a budget proposed Monday by the Obama administration that seeks to downsize the Pentagon in ways that could have a significant impact on service members and contractors in Maryland.

The proposed cuts reflect changing fortunes in the once-sacrosanct defense budget. Congress has ordered nearly $500 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade, causing a harsh re-evaluation of military needs as the nation closes out the punishing ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the changes are likely to face stiff resistance in Congress. If approved, the proposal could reduce the number of service members who work in Maryland and potentially affect some of the state's largest military contractors.

Maryland is home to nearly 28,000 active military employees and tens of thousands of additional active and reserve service members who work in the state but may live elsewhere, according to state government data.

It's not yet clear what impact the proposal could have on the state, which is also home to major military installations such as the U.S. Naval Academy and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County and Aberdeen Proving Ground. The Pentagon provided few specifics about where cuts would be made and the proposal is only the first step in a long budget process.

Officials at the academy, Fort Meade and Aberdeen all said they are not yet aware of any potential impact.

"The reason for these cuts is because of the sequester, and that's the situation in which we find ourselves," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, referring to the automatic federal spending cuts that have been only partially rescinded. "Our Guard does vital and important work, and we would hope that Congress would be mindful of that when they have to make cuts."

If the proposal advances, it would mothball A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, including 18 flown by the Maryland Air National Guard. The snub-nosed ground-attack plane has been considered a target for military budget cuts for years but has repeatedly been saved as Congress works through budget details.

Lt. Col. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard, said it was too soon to say what the affect of the proposed budget might be on the Maryland-based unit.

"We're going to continue to prepare, to train, to be ready," he said. "This has been a tremendously successful unit."

Several experts said Maryland may be better positioned to weather military cuts than others. Total defense spending in Maryland accounted for about 5.4 percent of the state's economy in 2010, compared with roughly 18 percent in Virginia, said Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.

"It's not unimportant, but I don't think the state is as vulnerable to the kind of spending reductions" proposed in the budget, Fuller said.

That is at least in part because the state is positioned as one of the nation's centers of intelligence and cyber security — a growth industry even as the Pentagon contracts in other areas. Much of the National Security Agency operations that take place at Fort Meade aren't part of the budget Hagel discussed Monday.

"We haven't seen anything, so there really isn't anything I can say about potential impact," said Chad Jones, a spokesman at Meade. "What I can say for sure is that Fort Meade is clearly the cybercenter of gravity for the Department of Defense, and that mission is going to continue to grow."

Spending for cyberwarfare would increase under the plan.

If approved, the Army would drop from today's active-duty force of 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 over the next three years. The Marines would drop from 190,000 to 182,000.

"Since we are no longer sizing the force for prolonged" ground wars, the Army is larger than required and "larger than we can afford," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who announced the plan at the Pentagon.

In addition to retiring the Air Force's entire fleet of A-10 "Warthog" jets, as well as the high-flying U-2 spy planes made famous in the early Cold War, Hagel also proposed mothballing half the Navy's fleet of 22 cruisers, and building only 32 of the Navy's Littoral Combat ships, not 52 as previously planned.

The only military force to grow would be special operations forces. Increasingly used for training and counter-terrorism missions around the world, the elite force would increase by several thousand to 69,700.

The Army had 257,000 soldiers before the U.S. entered World War II, then quickly swelled to more than eight million during the war. After a post-war drawdown, it spiked again to more than 1.5 million during both the Korean and Vietnam wars. It was on a downward trajectory until the buildup that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.