WASHINGTON // The United States has scrapped plans to deploy a second aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf in the latest sign that budget uncertainty in Washington has begun to affect the US military presence abroad.
An aircraft carrier and an accompanying guided-missile cruiser were scheduled to deploy to the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet this week, but have been delayed because of the current budget climate, said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
"Facing budget uncertainty ... the US Navy made this request to the [defence] secretary and he approved," Mr Little said in a statement on Wednesday.
He added that the US presence in the Middle East was still "robust", with an arsenal of ships and aircraft that could quickly respond to any emergencies. It was not clear if the carrier would be deployed at a later date.
As tensions with Iran have increased over the past two years, the US has tried to maintain two aircraft carriers in the Gulf, last deploying a second carrier in April 2012 when Tehran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz in response to tightened economic sanctions by the Obama administration.
The deferred deployment of the aircraft carrier comes as legislators in Washington struggle to reach agreement on a US$1.2 trillion (Dh4.4 trillion) deficit-reduction package over the next decade before automatic military and domestic spending cuts kick in next month.
After a decade of almost blank-cheque spending, the defence department has already embarked on a painful $487 billion reduction in spending over the next decade - $46bn of which would be made over the next seven months - that is part of the debt ceiling deal reached in Congress last August that implemented $1 trillion in outright cuts, divided equally between defence and domestic programmes. The military's budget would face a further $500bn reduction over the same period if Congress fails to reach a deal on the additional $1.2 trllion in overall budget cuts.
Unsure whether a deal will be reached and additional cuts avoided, defence officials have ordered the branches of the military to immediately begin reducing their spending.
Detailed memos submitted to Congress by each branch of the military outlined the effects the automatic cuts would have, including reducing navy operations in the Pacific by up to one-third and cutting its flying hours on carrier-deployed aircraft in the Middle East by 55 per cent.
The aircraft carrier delay was announced on Wednesday, hours after the outgoing defence secretary, Leon Panetta, warned that the US's failure avoid self-inflicted budget crises was threatening national security.
"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," he said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington.
"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," he added.
* with additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters