| ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE
ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE The United States will not cut America's fleet of 11 aircraft carriers to help trim the budget deficit, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday, citing tensions with Iran as an example of why the massive ships are so critical to national security.
Panetta was addressing about 1,700 sailors headed to the Gulf this spring aboard the USS Enterprise, which after a half-century of service is about to embark on its final tour before being taken offline in November.
The Enterprise's last deployment comes at a moment of heightened tensions with Iran, which has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important oil shipping lane. That's something the United States says it will not allow.
"You're part of what keeps our force agile and flexible and quickly deployable and capable of taking on any enemy, anywhere in the world," Panetta said, speaking about 100 nautical miles off the coast of the U.S. state of Georgia.
"For that reason that the President of the United States and all of us . have decided that it is important for us to maintain our carrier presence at full strength. And that means we'll be keeping 11 carriers in our force," he said to applause.
Next week, the Pentagon is due to announce a five-year budget plan that will cut about $260 billion from projected defense spending, scaling back the military after a decade of costly land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some analysts have speculated that the Pentagon could slightly shrink the carrier fleet, perhaps by slowing construction of new ships to replace older ones like the Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered carrier. Its missions date back to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Vietnam war.
There will already be a nearly three-year gap between the time that the Enterprise goes offline in November and its replacement, the USS Gerald R. Ford, comes online in 2015.
But Panetta insisted that the U.S. commitment to a fleet of 11 carriers was long-term and was quick to cite Iran as one of the important reasons that aircraft carriers were important in projecting American military power anywhere in the world.
Asked about Iran by one of the crew, Panetta said the United States would forge ahead with efforts to tighten sanctions isolating Iran over its nuclear program - sending a clear message that the international community will not let it obtain a nuclear weapon. Iran says its uranium enrichment is peaceful.
"But the most important way we make those messages clear is to show that we are prepared, and that we are strong. And that we will have a presence in that part of the world. And that's what this carrier is all about," he said.
"And better for them to deal with us through diplomacy and through international rules and regulations - and not other ways. Because they ain't going to win."
Panetta's trip to the Enterprise came as its strike group ran drills confronting a hostile, hypothetical nation named "Garnet." Panetta sat in the captain's chair as a fictitious enemy ship trailed the Enterprise, and spoke to a pilot as he attempted to land on the deck. After more training, the Enterprise will deploy in March and eventually head to the Gulf.
"They are going to a critical area of the world," Panetta told reporters later. "They're going to be traveling through the Straits of Hormuz and they will represent the naval presence and power projection that we've made clear that we're going to maintain in the Middle East."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Walsh)