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The Navy has lost two-thirds of its rapid “surge capability,” meaning the service has less flexibility to use its largest battle groups to respond to global hotspots, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said Friday.

However, funding that came following the across-the-board defense budget cuts in March has allowed the Navy to designate a U.S.-based carrier group as surge-ready heading into 2014, which allows scheduled deployments in the contentious Asia-Pacific region to continue as planned.

The Navy normally has sets of three carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups in the Atlantic and Pacific designated for surge duty – meaning they are ready to respond and combine with other deployed units within 1-2 weeks in an emergency situation.

Currently, however, the only such carrier group is the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Harry S. Truman, Greenert told Stars and Stripes following a public meeting with sailors at Yokosuka Naval Base’s fleet theater.

Although this leaves the Navy with less firepower, Greenert said the Navy’s surge capacity looks better than it did at the outset of the March 1 budget cuts known as sequestration.

“Because we got the budget, we were able to get the training turned up,” Greenert said. But, “we’ll still only have one [carrier and amphibious set] as we go into ’14,” he said.

If the current budget situation continues, the USS George H.W. Bush carrier group, also in Norfolk, will likely be the Navy’s surge-ready group following USS Truman’s tenure, Greenert said.

Deployed carrier groups typically include the aircraft carrier itself, which sails with upwards of 5,000 personnel; 3-6 ships consisting of destroyers and guided missile cruisers; one or two support ships, a submarine and several dozen aircraft. An amphibious group typically includes at least three ships, a Marine Expeditionary Unit and embarked aircraft.

Without the added funding, the Navy planned to call on the Japan-based aircraft carrier USS George Washington and the amphibious ship USS Bonhomme Richard group to handle surge duties.

Theoretically, that could have meant sailing the lead ships and their battle group mates out of the Asia-Pacific region for an emergency, a potentially precarious move given North Korea’s recent threats and heated squabbles between China and its neighbors over several island groups.

Instead, the USS Bonhomme Richard group is on its scheduled Western Pacific deployment, and the USS George Washington group will depart sometime this summer. The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz is currently approaching South Korea, Navy officials said Friday.

The Navy also maintains a carrier group in the Arabian Gulf, which is available to support Afghanistan operations. However, the Obama administration and the Pentagon have repeatedly named the Asia-Pacific region the nation’s top long-term foreign policy priority.

On Friday, much of Greenert’s message to sailors at Yokosuka reiterated Asia’s importance.

“If you’re out here, your operating money is getting restored,” Greenert told the audience. “This has to be the No. 1 area of our Navy that needs to be operating right. We get more out of you per person, per ship, than we do anywhere else in the Navy.”

The service initially made worldwide cutbacks in sea time for ships, known as “steaming days,” following the March sequestration budget cuts. The Pacific fleet commander has since restored those steaming days, and Greenert said Friday he wants to sustain that move.

“The Japanese are terrific allies, and we’ve got the best ships and the best people here,” Greenert said. “So, it would be crazy to reduce the operations out here.”

After leaving Japan, Greenert will spend time in Singapore with the USS Freedom, the first of the Navy’s littoral combat ships.

The $37 billion Littoral Combat Ship program has come under scrutiny for cost overruns and delivery delays in Congress. A 2012 internal Navy report reported on recently questioned the ship’s survivability in combat.

Although he later told Stars and Stripes he was speaking in general terms, Greenert said that the planned 52-ship program will undergo changes.

“It’s going to evolve, trust me on that,” Greenert told sailors. “What it is today is probably not what you’re going to see in the future. And if you went to the first gaggle of Arleigh Burke [destroyers], they don’t look anything like the ones today.”

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