Maryland to fare well in Obama's 'leaner' defense strategy

While President Barack Obama described plans Thursday to make the U.S. military "leaner," officials in Maryland said the focus of installations and defense contractors here on intelligence, cyberwarfare, research and development is likely to protect the state from the deep cuts feared elsewhere.

The defense strategy the president unveiled calls for bolstering the U.S. military presence in the Asian-Pacific region and increasing investment in NATO and other partnerships as the United States pulls troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army and Marine Corps are due to begin shrinking in 2015.

"None of that really impacts Maryland in a particular way," said retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. J. Michael Hayes, director of the state office of military and federal affairs. "The positive for Maryland is the continued emphasis on intelligence, cybersecurity, all those things that are kind of central to what we do.

"Like everybody, we will be part of feeling some of the pain, but much less so than others."

The military footprint in Maryland has grown in the decade since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the national base realignment known as BRAC.

The U.S. Cyber Command and the Defense Information Systems Agency have joined the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. The Army Communications-Electronics Command and the Army Test and Evaluation Command have settled into Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Their missions are likely to remain priorities in Obama's military strategy.

"As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints — we'll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces," he said during an appearance at the Pentagon.

Flanked by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and other officials, Obama said the country would "continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems" while investing in "the capabilities that we need for the future" — including surveillance and reconnaissance, counterterrorism and countering weapons of mass destruction.

He said defense spending would continue to grow, but at a slower pace than in the previous decade.

"I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined," he said.

The strategy moves away from the nation's 65-year-old doctrine of maintaining the capability to wage two major regional wars simultaneously.

In its place, the document released Thursday describes a force "capable of defeating a major act of aggression in one theater while denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — an opportunistic aggressor in a second theater."

Obama issued this warning to would-be adversaries: "Yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats."

While officials were short on specifics Thursday, the broad outlines of the plan had long been anticipated. Obama had already directed Panetta to cut $460 billion from Pentagon spending over the next decade, with more reductions to come if Congress is unable to agree on a plan to trim the deficit.

A spokesman for the Maryland National Guard said it was unclear whether or how the vision would affect the force. Spokesman Lt. Col. Charles S. Kohler said the Guard has just settled into "our first year of stability" following a 10 percent reduction from 7,070 soldiers and airmen in 2006 to 6,423 in 2011.

Kohler said the new strategy's largest impact on the Guard could be a cutback on C-27J Spartan aircraft. The Guard is due to receive four of the Lockheed Martin-developed turboprops, which are designed for airlift, airdrop or medevac missions, to replace eight C-130J Hercules aircraft.

Members of the 20th Special Forces Group have trained on the new planes in advance of their deployment this year to Afghanistan. But the Guard has received only three of the C-27Js, and the Pentagon has cut the number it planned to purchase from 78 to 36.

Fort Meade commander Col. Edward Rothstein said it was "premature" to assess the effects of the new strategy on the installation. With 56,000 service members, civilians and contractors, the 95 agencies and organizations at the base in Anne Arundel County combine to form the largest employer in the state.

"We're deciphering the key notes and messages that came out of" the president's address, Rothstein said. "I did hear it talked about money going into cyberspace."

Rothstein and other commanders at Fort Meade were already looking at "effectiveness and efficiencies" as part of the budgeting process. Rothstein spoke of mounting "a good strategic communications effort for the workforce here on Fort Meade and the entire community" to warn of the impacts that cuts would have.

"I cannot afford for Fort Meade to be doing this in isolation, within its fence line," he said. "The whole community needs to be aware."

Hayes said the impacts of the strategy on the state should become clearer later this month when the Pentagon releases budget details. He described defense contracting, a major industry in Maryland, as "an area that bears close watching and maybe some concern."

But overall, Hayes said, "there's reason for optimism in Maryland."

"Particularly for those installations that were growing as a result of BRAC, they will take some inevitable personnel and maybe even some modest structure cuts, but the investment in what they are doing as their core missions we think is going to continue to grow," he said.

"The bottom line is there is nothing in the new strategic look that, at least, as of now, significantly impacts Maryland in a negative way."

The Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this article.