WASHINGTON — Only days before the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman was due to leave Norfolk for the Persian Gulf this month, the Pentagon abruptly canceled the deployment, pleading poverty.
With cuts in the federal budget due to take effect Friday, Pentagon officials said they feared that sending the carrier on a six-month cruise to the Middle East would empty their operations accounts.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday alluded to the decision to hold back the Truman. “The threat of these cuts has forced the Navy to cancel the deployment,” he said in a speech in southeastern Virginia, a few miles from the Norfolk naval base. He sought to lay the responsibility for the imminent cuts on Congress, adding that “only Congress has the power to pass a law that stops these damaging cuts and replaces them” with more sensible alternatives.
But on the same day that the defense cuts are to begin, one of the Navy’s newest vessels, the littoral combat ship Freedom, will set sail for Singapore on a long-planned, eight-month deployment, part of the Obama administration’s emphasis on rebuilding the U.S. military presence in the Asian Pacific, officials said.
The contrast between the Truman and the Freedom is a revealing reminder that, while the spending cuts, known as a sequester, will be far-reaching and in some cases severe, there is an element of gamesmanship in the way the administration portrays the impact.
As the White House looks to put Congress on the defensive for failing to move on a plan to halt the sequester, it’s a powerful argument to blame the budget mechanism for blocking an aircraft carrier from the conflict-racked Middle East.
Similar high-profile cuts have begun to crop up elsewhere in the government. On Tuesday, administration officials announced that immigration authorities were releasing several hundred nonviolent detainees from holding facilities around the country. Because of the budget cuts, officials asserted, the government won’t have enough money to hold all its 34,000 detainees. Officials say the released detainees are under other forms of supervision, including electronic and telephonic monitoring. Their cases continue to proceed in court.
Some defense officials and outside analysts say the Pentagon could have found the money to send the Truman to the Middle East, though it would have required the Navy to curtail other deployments and operations. Keeping the Truman home will save as much as $300 million, officials said.
All of the military services have spent the last month warning that they will be forced to curtail training hours and equipment maintenance for everyone other than forces in Afghanistan and South Korea. That will leave soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines not fully ready to fight in case they’re needed, officials warn.
But outside budget experts note that it is hard to assess the real impact of the sequester because the services have not disclosed much detail on the programs they are protecting from cuts.
“What they don’t tell us is what the priorities are that they have protected,” said Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert at American University who oversaw Pentagon budgeting during the Clinton administration.
The automatic budget cuts were required under a 2011 budget law, negotiated by Obama and Republican leaders, that set an across-the-board reduction in most programs if Congress failed to find other ways to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over the coming decade. The Pentagon faces a budget reduction of more than $40 billion through the end of September, and additional cuts would come in future years as long as the sequester remains in effect.
Each of the Pentagon’s thousands of accounts — with a few exceptions including military pay and operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere — would be cut by as much as 15 percent in order to hold the base defense budget to $486 billion this year.
Some Defense budget experts say the problem with the sequester is not the size of the cuts, but the across-the-board way they are imposed, which prevents the Pentagon from cutting low-priority spending and preserving dollars for important priorities, such as military operations.
Over the last decade of two wars and constant deployments, the Pentagon has grown accustomed to ample budgets that rarely required such choices. But that era is drawing to an end.
Canceling the aircraft carrier’s trip to the Middle East “is something they probably have been contemplating anyway,” Todd Harrison, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Now they are trying to pin the blame on the sequester.”
Obama ordered the Pentagon to keep two carriers in the Middle East in late 2011 in response to requests from top U.S. commanders, who wanted to beef up the U.S. presence amid rising tensions with Iran. But maintaining that presence became increasingly difficult after the number of deployable carriers in the fleet dropped to nine last year, Navy officials said.
Typically, three carriers are being overhauled or in training for every one that is deployed. With one permanently assigned to the Pacific, it would have been almost impossible to keep two carriers in the Middle East beyond next summer without severely stressing the force, said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the chief Navy spokesman.
Since the automatic cuts would not apply to contracts that have already been signed, most of the Pentagon weapons procurement programs would not be affected, at least initially.
But the longer the cuts remain in force, the more likely it would be that the Defense Department would have to further slow purchases of expensive weapons systems, such as the problem-plagued F-35 fighter, and cancel future weapons programs that run over budget, including Navy shipbuilding contracts and the Air Force’s new KC-46 aerial refueling tanker.
Pentagon officials are asking for greater latitude to move money between accounts, but even that request faces skepticism from lawmakers worried about defending projects the Pentagon might like to cut.
“The effort is really going to focus on giving (the Defense Department) flexibility” to move money around, Harrison said.