Washington: The US is cutting its aircraft carrier strength in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, the Defence Department said, in a move that represents one of the most significant effects of budget cuts on US military presence overseas.
The decision yesterday came with Washington struggling to find a way to avoid across-the-board automatic spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and domestic programmes next month.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has approved keeping just one carrier in the Persian Gulf region. The US has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for most of the last two years.
Panetta has been leading a campaign to replace the automatic cuts he warns would "hollow out" the military, and the Pentagon has been providing greater details on the pruning it would have to undertake if Congress were to fail to both replace them and agree on a 2013 defence budget bill.
If Congress doesn`t pass a budget, Panetta said, the Pentagon will have to absorb USD 46 billion in spending reductions this fiscal year and will face a USD 35 billion shortfall in operating expenses.
Thus, plans for the USS Harry S Truman to deploy to the Gulf later this week have been cancelled. The USS Dwight D Eisenhower, brought home to Norfolk, Virginia, from the Gulf in December for the resurfacing of its flight deck and other maintenance, will return later this month and stay until about summer.
The USS John C Stennis will leave the Gulf and return home after the Eisenhower arrives.
Pentagon press secretary George Little issued a statement yesterday afternoon confirming the carrier decision after The Associated Press, citing unidentified US officials, reported Panetta`s move.
According to the Navy, reducing the carrier presence in the Gulf from two to one will save several hundred million dollars, including spending on fuel for the ships and the carrier`s air wing, food and other supplies.
The Navy says it will cease deployments to South America and the Caribbean and limit those to Europe.
Congress has not approved a budget for this fiscal year, and instead has been passing bills to continue the same level of spending as last year. As a result, the Pentagon is operating on less money than it budgeted for this year.
The Georgetown appearance was likely one of Panetta`s last speeches as defence secretary. He is set to leave the Pentagon this month. Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has been nominated to take his place, but the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday announced that its vote on the matter was being delayed.