WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, the Defense Department said Wednesday, in a move that represents one of the most significant effects of budget cuts on the U.S. military presence overseas. The decision comes as Washington struggles to find a way to avoid sharp automatic spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and domestic programs next month.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has approved keeping just one carrier in the Persian Gulf region. The U.S. 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 cuts it would have to make if Congress fails to both replace them and agree on a 2013 defense budget bill. The carrier decision is one of the most significant announcements made thus far.
Plans for the USS Harry S Truman to deploy to the Gulf later this week have been canceled. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, brought home to Norfolk, Va., 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 Wednesday afternoon confirming the carrier decision after The Associated Press, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported Panetta's move.
Little said the Navy asked Panetta to delay the deployments of the Truman and the USS Gettysburg, a guided-missile cruiser, because of budget uncertainty.
"This prudent decision enables the U.S. Navy to maintain these ships to deploy on short notice in the event they are needed to respond to national security contingencies," Little said, adding that the U.S. will maintain "robust military presence" in the region.
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.
Although the ships will not deploy, the crews will continue with their duties in Norfolk, and the ships will routinely conduct training and exercises. It was not clear whether the ships would eventually be deployed to the Gulf if the budget issues were resolved.
"There is great disappointment, quite frankly," said Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, commander of the Truman strike group. "The crews are ready to go overseas. At the same time, nobody likes to leave their home. Nobody likes to leave their family."
Sweeney said he's focusing on assisting the roughly 5,500 crew members affected by the change. Prior to deployment, many sailors cancel their apartment leases and cellphone plans and put their cars and other belongings into storage.
In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved a formal directive to keep two carrier groups in the Gulf amid escalating tensions with Iran. It has been part of a U.S. show of force in the region, particularly in an effort to ensure that the critical Strait of Hormuz remains open to naval traffic.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strategic waterway, which is the transit route for about a fifth of the world's oil supply, in retaliation for increased Western-led sanctions.