WASHINGTON — — 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 Martin O'Malley, referring to the automatic federal spending cuts that have been only partially rescinded.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.
Several Republican lawmakers criticized the plan Monday, arguing that cutting ground forces as well as warships and fighter planes could put U.S. security at risk.
"Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in seventy years does not accurately reflect the current security environment," said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican. "Cutting key Air Force and naval capabilities just as we are trying to increase our presence in the Pacific does not make strategic sense."
Maryland lawmakers offered a tepid response to the proposal Monday with several suggesting they wanted more information about how the proposed cuts would translate into changes on the ground in the state. Some of that detail may become available when President Barack Obama unveils his government-wide budget next week.
"We have to make sure we evaluate what the cuts are to make sure they don't make us weaker," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in an interview. "You also have to look at the jobs."
Rep. Andy Harris, the only military veteran representing the state in Congress, said he opposed cuts under consideration for military families, such as those that help pay for housing on military bases. Harris, a Republican, said the overall "budget will increase non-defense spending by $28 billion and we should cut that spending before we consider cutting benefits for our men and women in uniform."
The cuts may face opposition, as well, because they would require painful reductions to National Guard units around the country, which enjoy strong backing on Capitol Hill. The plan calls for trimming the Army National Guard by 20,000 to 335,000, and the Army Reserve by 10,000 to 195,00.
Defense officials argued that the cuts are necessary to preserve more important capabilities and to keep weapons programs that are vital as the United States places more emphasis on deterring Chinese expansion in the western Pacific, and on preventing terrorist attacks from the Middle East and Africa.
Though both Democrats and Republicans have warned of the danger of deep cuts in defense, neither party has been able to spare the Pentagon budget from sharp declines as Congress grapples with pressure to reduce federal spending.
The Army already was scheduled to shrink to 490,000 by 2015, but with the Pentagon still facing years of reductions in planned future spending, the administration opted to cut manpower further to protect major weapons acquisition programs, notably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive program in Pentagon history.
The radar-evading F-35, which was largely spared cuts in the Pentagon plan, is assembled in Fort Worth, Texas, but many of its parts come from other parts of the country. The aircraft is being made by Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp.
The company said in a statement that "we are currently reviewing the Pentagon's spending plan as outlined today by Secretary Hagel, and we'll continue to assess the budget once the president delivers it to Congress and they begin their appropriations process."
The Department of Defense accounted for more than $13 billion in spending in Maryland in the 2012 fiscal year.
David S. Cloud is a reporter for Tribune Newspapers. Tribune Washington reporter Michael A. Memoli contributed to this article.