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Washington (AFP) Feb 6, 2013
The US military will maintain only one aircraft carrier in the Gulf instead of two due to potential deep budget cuts that could kick in next month, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
For several years, the United States has kept two carriers deployed in the Gulf due to tensions with Iran, but uncertainty surrounding the Pentagon's budget forced the decision, officials said.
The USS Harry S. Truman had been scheduled to head to the Gulf on Friday from its port in Norfolk, Virginia, but Defense Secretary Leon Panetta canceled the deployment after conferring with Navy commanders, officials said.
Panetta has "delayed the deployment" of the Truman and an accompanying guided missile cruiser, the USS Gettysburg, press secretary George Little said in a statement.
The ships were scheduled to depart for the Middle East this week.
"Facing budget uncertainty... the US Navy made this request to the secretary and he approved," Little said.
He called it a "prudent decision" and said the Navy would be able to deploy the carriers "on short notice" if needed.
The US military "continues to stand ready to respond to any contingency and to confront any threat in the region," he added.
Panetta spoke to President Barack Obama about the move on Tuesday, a US official said on condition of anonymity.
In the meantime, the USS John Stennis aircraft carrier remains in the Gulf, and is due to be relieved by the USS Dwight Eisenhower by early March, officials said.
By canceling the deployment orders for the Truman, the Pentagon will save several hundred million dollars over the current fiscal year, officials said. The nuclear-powered US aircraft carriers each have crews of about 5,000.
Panetta earlier warned of the threat posed to the military's readiness by automatic spending cuts due to enter into force if Congress fails to reach a budget deal by March 1.
The Defense Department would face roughly $50 billion in budget reductions this fiscal year if the automatic cuts are triggered.
In addition, Congress has failed to adopt the Pentagon's proposed budget for 2013, so it is already operating at lower than planned funding levels for operations and maintenance.
At the White House, Obama met executives from defense firms to discuss the effect of potential automatic budget cuts.
Among the executives was Mike Petters, president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, which builds America's aircraft carriers.
The Pentagon has long worked to keep two carriers in the Gulf year-round with few exceptions.
In November, the Pentagon announced it would have only one carrier in the region because one of its ships had to undergo repairs.
The United States bolstered its military presence in the strategic Gulf over the past year after Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Western countries boycotted Iranian oil exports.
About a fifth of the world's traded oil passes through the vital waterway.
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