WASHINGTON — Postponing deployment of an aircraft carrier and a guided missile cruiser to the Middle East is just the first in a series of changes to the military’s global presence as the Defense Department tries to maintain readiness amid budget uncertainty, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey said Wednesday.

Additionally, the Pentagon will include a smaller-than-expected pay raise for servicemembers, a request for base realignment and closure, and Tricare savings in its budget request for fiscal 2014 in an effort to cut costs, Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters.

But if Congress does not pass a defense budget for the current fiscal year or avert automatic spending cuts, the budget will have to be “thrown out the window” and the services could face significant downsizing, they said.

Panetta on Wednesday approved the Navy’s request to postpone deployment of the U.S.S. Truman and the U.S.S. Gettysburg, which were scheduled to leave this week for the Middle East.

“We’re trying to stretch our readiness out by keeping this particular carrier back at home port in our global response force, so that if something happens elsewhere in the world, we can respond to it,” Dempsey said. “This is the first adjustment in what will be, I think, a series of adjustments across the services as we try to preserve our readiness for as long as possible.”

The Pentagon was forced to absorb about $487 billion in cuts over 10 years as part of a 2011 deal to solve a previous debt-ceiling crisis, and the DOD’s budget proposal for fiscal 2014 reflects those cuts. But the Defense Department has already started slashing spending in case Congress does not approve the full fiscal 2013 budget, or sequestration takes effect.

Panetta, who has long warned that the billions of dollars’ worth of automatic spending cuts could harm military readiness, said Wednesday that sequestration would mean shrinking Army training to a point that would impact the readiness of two-thirds of the brigade combat teams that aren’t in Afghanistan and cutting naval operations in the western Pacific by as much as a third.

“Our fear is that it really is going to create a readiness crisis for the military that is going to make it very difficult to respond to the crises that we still have to confront in the world,” he said.

Dempsey said many of the current spending decisions were made to ensure that troops on deployment won’t get stuck there and that units about to deploy get the training they need. But the next group of servicemembers scheduled to deploy could face challenges, he said.

“What we don’t want to do is end up in a position where we have to make the decision to extend deployments or to deploy somebody who’s not ready to deploy to the level that we think they should be,” Dempsey said. “We’re not anywhere near there, but the near-term actions we’re taking are intended to preserve and stretch readiness as long as possible so that we don’t face that eventuality.” Twitter: @jhlad

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