The Pentagon halted the upcoming deployment of a Norfolk-based aircraft carrier Wednesday two days before it was set to ship out -- the strongest indication yet that looming budget cuts are forcing the military to change the way it operates.
The Harry S. Truman had cleared all its training and certifications and was gearing up for deployment Friday. But the Navy, faced with a budget crisis that could mean more than $8 billion in cuts this year alone, asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to cancel a requirement that the United States keep two carriers in the Persian Gulf, Pentagon officials said. Panetta acquiesced and, in a sharp turnaround for a ship the size of a small city, about 5,000 sailors learned Wednesday afternoon that the deployment had been cancelled.
"The crews are ready; they've been working hard; they are very motivated and focused," Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, commander of Carrier Strike Group 10, told reporters. "So there is great disappointment, quite frankly. The crews are ready to go overseas. At the same time, nobody likes to leave their home. Nobody likes to leave their family. But again, they are going to be ready to go when called upon."
The Truman was to deploy along with the Mayport, Fla.-based guided missile cruiser Gettysburg, Carrier Air Wing Three and the Hamburg, a German frigate that arrived in Norfolk last month to join the carrier strike group.
The United States has tried to keep two carrier groups in the Persian Gulf since tensions with Iran flared in 2010. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the transit route for about a fifth of the world's oil supply, in retaliation for increased Western-led sanctions.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the decision was a direct result of the imminent reductions, including across-the-board cuts triggered by the inability of lawmakers to curb the national debt. But Little said it would not affect the nation's ability "to maintain a robust military presence" in the Persian Gulf. He said the Truman can remain on alert, ready to respond as needed.
"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 in a statement.
Pentagon officials have been warning for weeks that the cuts are going to have ripple effects across the military. But Panetta's decision was highly symbolic and is a tangible demonstration of the practical consequences for Hampton Roads should the cuts continue.
Carrier deployments now last around eight months. Beforehand, sailors routinely put their cars in storage, give up their apartments and sometimes move their families closer to loved ones.
Sweeney said the Navy will work with a number of community organizations to help sailors who now have to restart lives they just closed down.
Airman Carly Grice, 20, from Kentwood, La., said she had been excited to go on her first deployment and this was a letdown.
"Actually, I am very disappointed," said Grice, who joined the Navy in August and hopes to make a career in the service. She wonders whether that's realistic, given the budgetary troubles.
"I don't know what's going to happen," she said. "I guess we will have to wait and see."
Flexibility is nothing new for the crew of the Truman and its air wing. Until late last year, the carrier was slated to leave midway through 2013, but mechanical difficulties with another carrier forced the Navy to move up its deployment. That meant a compressed timeline for the ship and its squadrons to get ready. It spent much of the past three weeks at sea, finishing required drills.
It pulled in Sunday, and crew members used the week to say goodbye and put their personal lives on hold.
Sweeney said the carrier Eisenhower, which returned from deployment in December to have its flight deck resurfaced, will deploy in a few weeks as planned. It will relieve the John C. Stennis, a West Coast-based carrier in the gulf.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said people should be prepared for more reductions as the political stalemate between Congress and the White House persists. The automatic cuts are to begin March 1.
"The unfortunate thing is, this is the first of many shoes to drop," said Warner, a Democrat. "I'm not sure how often we can lurch from crisis to crisis."
U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, whose district includes Norfolk Naval Station and Oceana Naval Air Station, said in a statement that the seriousness of this situation "cannot be overstated. These cuts have the potential to devastate our region and, as we can see by today's announcement, the impact on our community and our forward presence has already begun."
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine said lawmakers needed to find a way to resolve the political stalemate.
"We gotta shake Congress up on this," said Kaine, a Democrat. "When the most prominent stories of the day about national security concerns... are about Congress's inability to produce a budget to fund defense, then the problem is internal. Our biggest national security challenge right now is an internal one."
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