Lawmakers talk about delayed deployment of USS Harry S. Truman, defense cuts

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Associated Press and 13News

Posted on February 21, 2013 at 1:08 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 5:44 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.
 
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.
 
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 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 the decision.
 
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.

United States Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said the cancellation of the Truman's deployment is the first "shoe to drop" when it comes to sequestration cuts.

"This will not only hurt our national military preparedness, but the effect it will have on Hampton Roads is not only are sailors deployed, but as ship repair contracts are cut, as government contractors are furloughed one day a week, that's going to affect not only those folks who work for the Navy, work for the military, but all of the ancillary support services. That trickles through the whole Hampton Roads economy," explained Warner.

United States Representative Randy Forbes (R-4th District) shared Warner's economic concerns.

"The thing is, we can't lose sight of -- at the same time we have these huge impacts -- we're having huge strategic impacts across the globe when you start cutting carriers out, and, also, we may not be able to do the work we need to make sure that we've got the missile defense system and the capabilities we need there in place," Forbes said.

"The Navy's announcement throws thousands of sailors' lives topsy-turvy," noted United States Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). "They've been making all these plans about a deployment, some sub-leasing their apartments and doing all kinds of other things."

Kaine serves on the Senate's Budget and Armed Services Committee. He has been working with many of his fellow senators and believes they will be come up with an alternative to the sequestration cuts.

Kaine expected to see Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a hearing about Benghazi Thursday.

"If I have Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey sitting in a witness chair in front of me, I'm gonna talk to them about this," Kaine told 13News. "I'm going to be talking to them about this, and, basically, saying, look why don't we find a short-term bridge, move the sequester, and just make it a part of our orderly budget process, and not do this kinds of stupid non-strategic cuts that turn our service men's and women's lives upside down and make us less safe."

In a statement Wednesday, Virginia Congressman Scott Rigell urged the president and the Senate to consider alternatives to avert sequestration.

“This most recent announcement concerning the USS Harry S. Truman and our carrier presence in the Persian Gulf is an early indication of the challenge our region will face if sequestration is not averted.”   
 
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.     
 
The Pentagon blamed the decision on budget shortfalls in the current fiscal year spending as well as the threat of across-the-board automatic budget cuts that will be triggered if Congress doesn't act to stop them by the beginning of March. 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.
 
On Wednesday, Panetta laid out a grim list of spending cuts the Pentagon will have to make in the coming weeks that he said will seriously damage the country's economy and degrade the military's ability to respond to a crisis.
 
Criticizing members of Congress as irresponsible, Panetta said lawmakers are willing to push the country off a fiscal cliff to damage their political opponents.
 
If Congress doesn't pass a budget, Panetta said, the Pentagon will have to absorb $46 billion in spending reductions in this fiscal year and will face a $35 billion shortfall in operating expenses.
 
"My fear is that there is a dangerous and callous attitude that is developing among some Republicans and some Democrats, that these dangerous cuts can be allowed to take place in order to blame the other party for the consequences," Panetta said in a speech at Georgetown University. "This is a kind of `so what?' attitude that says, `Let's see how bad it can get in order to have the other party blink."'
 
In separate, highly detailed memos sent to Congress, the military services described widespread civilian furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes that will hit workers all around the country. Overall, the military will furlough 800,000 civilian workers for 22 days, spread across more than five months, and will lay off as many as 46,000 temporary and contract employees.
 
The Navy says it will cease deployments to South America and the Caribbean and limit those to Europe.
 
The Air Force warned that it would cut operations at various missile defense radar sites from 24 hours to eight hours. The Army said it would cancel training center rotations for four brigades and cancel repairs for thousands of vehicles, radios and weapons.
 
"These steps would seriously damage the fragile American economy, and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe," Panetta said, adding that the self-made crisis "undermines the men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect this country."
 
In addition to all of the more immediate cuts, U.S. troops are also likely to see a smaller pay hike next year than initially planned, due to strains on the budget. According to a defense official, the Pentagon will recommend that the military get a 1 percent pay increase in 2014, instead of a 1.7 percent raise. The official was not authorized to discuss the policy publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
 
The Georgetown appearance was likely one of Panetta's last speeches as defense secretary. He is set to leave the Pentagon this month. Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has been nominated to take his place and a vote by the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected this week.

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