NORFOLK -- Even as the U.S. prepares to christen its newest aircraft carrier, oncoming budget cuts will compel the Navy to seriously consider reducing the overall size of its carrier fleet, the Navy's top officer said Wednesday.
Any move in that direction could have serious consequences for Hampton Roads, home to the only East Coast carrier port, the only U.S. shipyard that builds carriers and the Navy's master jet base, home to carrier air wings.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert addressed the matter after an all-hands call aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, which was pier side at Naval Station Norfolk.
With forced budget cuts under sequestration, he said the Navy has no choice but to put its multi-billion-dollar flattops on the table for consideration.
"You have to go where the money is, and carriers and air wings are quite expensive," he said. "I'd hate to say it is inevitable, but we have to look very hard at it."
In August, a Defense Department strategic review raised the possibility of mothballing two or three carrier strike groups, which would include aircraft and warships that accompany carriers into combat zones around the world.
However, Greenert said aircraft carriers will remain important, calling them a "key and critical part" of U.S. defense strategy.
"It's a balance of the two," he said. "We need to continue to build nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. How many we retain in force is a matter of question."
On Nov. 9, the aircraft carrier Gerald. R. Ford will be christened at Newport News Shipbuilding. It is the first of three Ford-class carriers in the works. The Navy dropped to 10 carriers when the USS Enterprise was retired from service last year. The Ford will bring it back to 11.
During his all-hands call, Greenert praised sailors of the Bush, which earlier this year earned a spot in naval history when an unmanned, computer-controlled aerial vehicle landed on its flight deck. It was a first for the Navy.
He also discussed the impact of forced spending cuts and the partial government shutdown that had a ripple effect throughout the uniformed ranks and thousands of civilian defense workers. The steady procession of cuts in 2013 will have a direct impact on the Bush crew. Its next deployment will be longer than usual, Greenert said.
Around the middle of next year, carrier strike groups will return to a more routine 7-1/2 month deployment, he said.
Meanwhile, there are signs that some aspects of Navy life are returning to normal.
Naval Air Station Oceana announced Wednesday that the Blue Angels flying team will return for the 2014 air show season, and that will include a stop at Oceana in September.
The NAS Oceana Air Show has been a staple in Virginia Beach for more than 50 years, attracting fans from Hampton Roads and beyond. The 2013 air show was canceled due to budget cuts. It was also canceled in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Greenert said it was critical that the Navy try to connect with local communities, even when money is tight. He said Navy and Defense Department analysts sat down and determined what could be done without sacrificing readiness.
"We have to have an outreach program," he said. "We've got to get out to America."