The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise is returning to the Middle East to replace the USS Nimitz, keeping the U.S. naval presence in the region at two carriers, Navy officials said Tuesday.

The Enterprise will replace the USS Nimitz, now operating in the 5th Fleet area of operations, in a one-for-one swap, according to a Navy official in the Pentagon.

Another Navy official declined to explain why the Enterprise will replace the Nimitz, which arrived in the region two months ago on May 8, instead of the USS John C. Stennis, which got to the Middle East on Feb. 19.

Fifth fleet officials also declined to provide more specific information.

“At this time, we will not discuss specific ship movement or numbers in the region, other than to say we maintain between 40 to 45 ships in the region,” 5th Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Denise Garcia said after the command issued a press release announcing the Enterprise’s departure from home port.

“All I can say is it’s coming out this way, but it is not here yet.”

Asked by reporters confused about how many carriers would now be in the region, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman cautioned Tuesday it would be “woefully wrong” to report that three carriers would be in the region.

“There is a scheduled swap of carriers that is part of the routine deployment of the Enterprise,” Whitman said during a daily meeting with reporters.

The Enterprise left its home port of Naval Station Norfolk, Va., with roughly 5,000 sailors last Wednesday. Other ships in the strike group also are sailing toward the Middle East, bringing to 7,500 the number of sailors deploying.

The carrier’s transit time is expected to be a few weeks, Garcia said. The Enterprise returned to port in November after about a 6½-month deployment that included operating in the Middle East.

The Navy made headlines this fall when it positioned two carriers in the Middle East. Observers claimed it was a show of force during rising tensions with the Iranian government and its pursuance of nuclear technology.

“Deploying the Enterprise CSG (Carrier Strike Group) to the region continues to demonstrate the United States commitment to security and stability in the region,” read a portion of the Navy’s Tuesday statement. “Regular deployments of the strike groups to the Middle East are not designed to provoke any of the Gulf countries. However, the carrier and her escorts will assert their right to operate throughout the region. These ships can operate together as one single strike force or dispersed to execute multiple missions simultaneously.”

“The complex operational environment here, especially during these challenging times, requires a strong presence in the region,” Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. 5th Fleet, said in a statement. “Enterprise presence provides Navy power to counter the assertive, disruptive and coercive behavior of some countries, as well as support our soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Cosgriff said.

The Enterprise strike group is comprised of the carrier Enterprise; Carrier Air Wing 1; the guided-missile destroyers USS Forrest Sherman, USS James E. Williams, USS Arleigh Burke, and USS Stout; guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg; attack submarine USS Philadelphia; and the Fast Combat Support Ship USNS Supply.

The region under 5th Fleet domain is 2.5 million square miles of water, and includes the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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