GW May Be Only Carrier Ready to Respond to Crisis

USS George Washington

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan -- The USS George Washington may be the Navy’s only aircraft carrier that will be ready to respond to a crisis later this year if Congress does not cancel billions of dollars of automatic spending cuts set to take effect next month.

The Navy has canceled ship maintenance and other projects to make up for a $4.6 billion funding shortfall it faces in 2013 because it is operating under a temporary congressional resolution limiting the Pentagon to 2012 spending levels.

Most of the immediate cuts are concentrated on larger bases in the United States and spare Navy operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, Navy documents show that if the Pentagon is forced to cut $55 billion from its planned budget for 2013 -- as the congressional spending straitjacket known as sequestration would require -- Navy operations in the Asia-Pacific would slow considerably.

There are usually at least three crisis-ready carriers -- one for the Atlantic and two for Pacific, one based in Japan, and one in California or Washington state.

A Jan. 25 document on sequestration, requested by Stars and Stripes from Navy officials, calls for only one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group, both of which would be Japan-based, to be crisis-ready by Oct. 13. So there wouldn’t be a carrier available to help in the event of an Atlantic-based crisis, and there would be no additional carrier group available if multiple incidents occur in the Pacific.

Deployed carrier operations in the Middle East, which differ from crisis operations, are already being reduced because of budget concerns. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta canceled USS Harry Truman’s Persian Gulf deployment Wednesday, effectively ending the department’s two-carrier policy in the region.

During the past few years, Navy ships have been tasked with semi-regular disaster relief missions in Asia, as well as patrolling in the midst of increasingly bitter squabbles over territory claimed by U.S. allies in the Western Pacific. Carriers based along the U.S. Pacific coast have repeatedly ventured to the Western Pacific.

“There could be, for the first time in my career, instances where we may be asked to respond to a crisis and we will have to say that we cannot,” Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a U.S. Naval Institute convention in San Diego on Tuesday.

If sequestration cuts aren’t averted, the Navy also plans to cut deployed operations in the Western Pacific by 35 percent, according to Navy documents. Nondeployed ships would lose 40 percent of their time at sea, port visits would be curtailed and multinational exercises would be canceled.

The Navy’s plans add pressure on the George Washington to keep to its maintenance schedule. The carrier returned to Yokosuka in November after a six-month patrol of the Western Pacific, and it needs repairs.

The ship is scheduled for a maintenance period called a selective restricted availability, or SRA, in about a week, Japan-based 7th Fleet officials confirmed Friday.

Carriers often spend nine months or more in an SRA maintenance period, but the George Washington has been scheduled for only six months.

U.S. Navy bases in the Asia-Pacific region could also face cuts to installation operating budgets. Navy documents call for a 10 percent servicewide cut in base operating expenses and a 50 percent cut in funds for building renovations and maintenance. Those are immediate cuts to make up for the current operating shortfall, though Navy documents refer to those cuts as reversible if Congress passes a spending bill.

Navy officials in Washington and Japan told Stars and Stripes on Thursday that it remained unclear how those fleetwide goals would affect Western Pacific base operations. Japan pays for a portion of base maintenance expenses under its host nation support agreement with the United States.

Without sequestration, the Pentagon had planned to cut about $500 billion over 10 years. Long-term sequestration would double that figure over nine years.

It would also require that about $500 billion be cut from non-defense discretionary programs, a sector encompassing 15 percent of the federal budget that includes housing assistance, health spending, NASA, foreign embassies, justice administration and more.

Congress established a committee to find $1 trillion in targeted spending cuts under the 2011 Budget Control Act. The bill included a clause calling for the across-the-board spending cuts included in sequestration -- which few in Congress ever wanted -- as an incentive to come up with a better plan. The sequestration cuts were scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, but Congress passed a bill postponing them until March while it considers other options.

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