WASHINGTON – The budget fracas that has embroiled Washington prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday to halt the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Middle East, halving the number of carriers that have been on call in the region through much of the last year.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a written statement that the decision was made at the request of the Navy, which faces a $4.6 billion reduction in spending on operations and maintenance this year because Congress has not passed a federal budget.

A Navy official who was not authorized to speak publicly said the decision will save between $200 million and $300 million a year.

In an interview late Wednesday with Stars and Stripes, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said budget uncertainty is forcing hard decisions about where to reduce U.S. military presence.

“Would I prefer to have two carriers in the Gulf, given the tension with Iran? Sure I would,” he said. “But this allows us to meet the requirements in the Gulf and manage the risk and preserve readiness.”

The Truman, along with the guided missile cruiser USS Gettysburg, were scheduled to leave this week to join the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf region, where U.S. Navy assets have been at the forefront of a standoff between Iran and the United States over the Islamic regime’s nuclear ambitions. The determination that the ships should stay in port was reached in recent days after officials realized that the Navy budget for carrier operations in U.S. Central Command would run out before the end of the year if two carriers remained in the area, the Navy official said.

The Pentagon last spring stationed two carriers in or near the Persian Gulf as Iran threatened to mine the Strait of Hormuz. Since December, however, maintenance issues with other ships have left the Stennis as the sole U.S. carrier patrolling the region.

The Truman and the Gettysburg will be ready to deploy “on short notice” should they be needed in the region, Little said. Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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