ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE - Reuters
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed about 1,700 sailors headed to the Gulf this spring aboard the USS Enterprise yesterday, 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.
The United States will not cut America's fleet of 11 aircraft carriers to help trim the budget deficit, Panetta said yesterday, citing tensions with Iran
as an example of why the massive ships are so critical to national security.
"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.