Washington: The US is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the 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 the US military presence overseas.
The decision Wednesday comes as Washington struggles to find a way to avoid across-the-board automatic spending cuts set to strike the Pentagon and domestic programs next month.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has approved keeping just one carrier in the Gulf region. The US has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for most of the last two years.
In 2010, then-Defence 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 US 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.
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 on Wednesday afternoon confirming the carrier decision after The Associated Press, citing unidentified US 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.
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.