The Pentagon is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, U.S. officials said Wednesday, in a move that represents one of the most significant effects of budget cuts on the U.S. military presence overseas.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delayed the deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group due to looming budget cuts, which means the USS Gettysburg will not sail from Mayport this week, and 11 Seahawk helicopters with HSM-74, based at NAS Jacksonville, will also stay home.
"Facing budget uncertainty -- including a continuing resolution and the looming potential for across-the-board sequestration cuts -- the U.S. Navy made this request to the secretary and he approved. 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," according to a release from Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.
Panetta has approved a plan to keep just one carrier in the Persian Gulf region, U.S. officials told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been announced.
Some sailors and soldiers are now wondering what could happen next as a result of these budgets cuts.
"It bothers me, but I still enjoy what I'm doing. Still getting paid, " said sailor Austin Diberardino.
Diberardino, a second-year sailor, didn't want to say which ship he's on, but he admits his deployment is getting pushed back, which he found out Wednesday.
As a result, Diberardino and his fiancee Kayla Giallanzo have to scrub their wedding plans for January.
"We were going to be home from this deployment hopefully in September," said Diberardino. "We were going to get married a few months after that. Now, with new time, the time we wanted to get married isn't going to happen.
While they don't know yet about rescheduling the big day, Giallanzo said she already has mixed feelings.
"Yes and no. I was happy he's going to be here longer, because it gives us more time to plan things together," said Giallanzo. "Then again, I want to just get it over with and have him back sooner."
Most other military families are much more concerned about the budget cuts impact on finances and the family's well-being.
National lawmakers from our area are also chiming in on the budget cuts.
Congressman Ron DeSantis said in a statement:
Cutting military salaries is an absolutely unacceptable method of coping with our nation's fiscal crisis. Those who serve our nation abroad and in harm's way should be the last to suffer the consequences of this administration's reckless spending habits. Where we need to be looking for cost-savings are in non-military, government bureaucracies that provide little return on investment for the taxpayers who are footing the bill. That is why I put forward a bill that freezes pay for non-military federal employees, Members of Congress, the Vice President and the President's Cabinet members which will be voted on the House floor next week.
The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for most of the last two years.
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was brought home from the Gulf in December for maintenance, including the resurfacing of its flight deck. It will return later this month and stay until about summer. The USS John C. Stennis is in the Gulf, but it will be returning home after the Eisenhower arrives.
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.
U.S. officials 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.