By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration was criticized by lawmakers on Wednesday over U.S. Army plans to cut nearly 60,000 soldiers and civilian personnel, warning the reductions were risky for U.S. forces at a time of conflict in the Middle East and rising tensions with Russia.
Senator John McCain, the Republican head of the Armed Services Committee, called the plan to cut 40,000 soldiers and 17,000 civilian personnel "another dangerous consequence of budget-driven strategy" pursued by President Barack Obama.
The cuts would reduce the active-duty Army from about 490,000 soldiers to about 450,000, its smallest number since before the United States entered World War Two. The Army was about 490,000 before the 2001 attacks and rose to about 570,000 in 2010 before reductions began.
Criticism arose as Army Secretary John McHugh began notifying members of Congress about military units that would be reduced and how states would be affected. On Tuesday, USA Today published some details of the reductions.
The hardest hit bases include Fort Benning, Georgia, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Army officials planned to convert a 4,000-member brigade combat team at each base into a 1,050-member battalion task force, a loss of nearly 3,000 soldiers apiece, according to an Army document seen by Reuters.
Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said he learned from McHugh that the Army planned to cut 4,350 soldiers in Georgia including 950 at Fort Stewart and 3,400 at Fort Benning. He said the cuts would take place by the end of 2017.
"I am demanding answers from the Department of Defense on how they are justifying these troop cuts in Georgia," Isakson said in a statement. "We cannot afford to reduce our military readiness at a time when the threats to our security here at home and throughout the world are growing at an alarming rate."
Isakson denounced the Army over the Pentagon's "failure to give Congress a heads-up" before locations of the cuts were reported by the media. He said he would block a vote on Obama's nominee to be the Pentagon's new congressional liaison.
The personnel cuts come as the Pentagon is attempting to absorb nearly $1 trillion in reductions to planned defense spending over a decade.
The reduction to 450,000 soldiers was initially announced in February 2014 when then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the Pentagon's 2015 budget. The figures were also included in the Quadrennial Defense Review, its four-year planning document.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Toni Reinhold)