The aircraft carriers Abraham Lincoln and John C. Stennis sail in formation during a turnover of responsibility in the Arabian Sea in 2012. (Navy)
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The military's top officer said canceling a naval carrier strike group's deployment to the Middle East will limit U.S. capability to some degree, but mounting pressures on the Pentagon's budget are making it necessary.
"Would I prefer to have two carriers in the [Persian] Gulf given the tensions with Iran? Sure I would. But this allows us to meet the requirements in the Gulf and manage the risk and preserve readiness," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview Wednesday at the Pentagon.
Dempsey spoke shortly after the Pentagon announced that the Navy will indefinitely postpone the deployment of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, dropping the number of aircraft carriers deployed in the Central Command region from two to one.
Dempsey said it was a tough decision driven by the threat from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers continue to fight about whether to allow large force-wide budget cuts to take effect later this year.
"This won't be the last adjustment that we make to the global presence. This happens to be the first because the deployment was imminent," Dempsey said.
While the U.S. Air Force has tactical air squadrons stationed in the Central Command region, those aircraft do not offer the Pentagon as much flexibility as naval air power, Dempsey said.
"When you have carrier-based aircraft, you have complete autonomy and control over when you use them. When you use land-based aircraft you often have to have the host nation's permission to use them," Dempsey said.
"The increased risk is not in the number and type of capability. It's in how responsive they can be."
Dempsey said the budget crisis on Capitol Hill has vastly reduced the Pentagon's ability to plan for spending cuts. If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement later this year, the Pentagon will have to squeeze a year's worth of budget cuts into the second half of the year. For now, Dempsey said, the best way to save money immediately is to scale back operations.
"When you have to absorb, in this case, $52 billion over the last six months of the fiscal year, that is not enough time to do it, which is why you raid the accounts that are most vulnerable, which is the readiness account," Dempsey said.
The chairman said troops should not worry, for now, about the impact on readiness. But risks may loom just over the horizon.
"I don't want to give anyone the impression that forces won't deploy and everybody that is currently deployed is going to be stuck out there — that is just not the case," Dempsey said.
"In fact we will have adequate funding to, first of all, sustain those that are deploying, [and] to prepare those who are about to deploy. It is actually the time after next where it gets really difficult.
"What we don't want to do is end up in a position where we have to make that decision to extend deployments or to deploy someone who is not ready to deploy to the level that we think they should be," Dempsey said.
"We are not anywhere near there. But the near-term actions we are taking are intended to preserve and stretch readiness as long as possible so we don't face that eventuality."