The U.S. military is turning to allies in the Middle East to fill gaps when Navy aircraft carriers can't make it out to the region, a top general said Thursday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers that his command can't always get an aircraft carrier into the region when they'd like to. His response comes as Pentagon leaders are reportedly considering retiring one of its 11 aircraft carriers -- the Harry S. Truman -- early.
"We had to work solutions that included other platforms and other coalition partners to help meet those requirements," Votel said Thursday during a House Armed Services committee hearing.
Defense leaders are currently debating the value of paying to refuel the Truman's nuclear reactor core, Breaking Defense reported last week. Retiring the supercarrier early -- between 2020 and 2025 --could save more than $30 billion, according to the site, which could be invested in more high-tech equipment.
The lack of carriers didn't hurt ongoing operations in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, Votel said. They were still able to carry out their missions using the ships they did have "in conjunction with our land-based capabilities," he said.
The Marine Corps stood up a land-based crisis response unit in recent years to make up for a shortage in amphibious assault ships. That unit, called the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Central Command, operates from Kuwait and other locations and comes equipped with 2,000 Marines, aircraft and a logistics element.
Votel did not say what percentage of his requests for carrier presence went unfulfilled. He told Rep. Elaine Luria that he would get back to her with an answer on the rate.
Luria, a Virginia Democrat, was asking whether the Navy's Optimized Fleet Response Plan, which put ships on 36-month cycles instead of 24-month cycles, was hurting missions in Votel's combatant command. Troops spend less time deployed at sea under that model, though they must remain ready to go for more than a year after returning home.
Getting back out to the Middle East from the U.S. takes time though. And Luria wanted to know whether the U.S. is still able to meet its maritime requirements in the region.
That, Votel replied, can be a challenge. Key responsibilities in the Middle East include reassuring allies and deterring the enemy.
They also support freedom of navigation and commerce through critical chokepoints in the region, he said. Last year, for example, the military was prepared to keep a vital crude-oil transit lane open after Iranian leaders threatened to block it after they were threatened with new sanctions.
"In some cases, we have been challenged in these areas," Votel said, of operating without a carrier in the region.
The Navy put the Optimized Fleet Response Plan into action in fiscal 2015. More than four years later, Votel said it's still too early to tell whether the concept is working.
"I think we have a ways to go yet before we declare that this is not a concept that works," he said. "I think we've seen it work in other combatant commands, and we look forward to trying it in CENTCOM as well."