Postponing the combat deployment of a Norfolk-based aircraft carrier will not compromise the safety of troops in the Middle East, a top U.S. general told Congress Tuesday.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said defense budget cuts are hurtful, but America's enemies shouldn't get the wrong idea.
"I still have one carrier out there," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If the President orders us into action, I have what it takes to make it the enemy's worst day, and their longest day."
Mattis and Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, spent three hours answering questions about the war in Afghanistan, the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, the escalating crisis in Syria, sexual assault in the military and the role of women in combat.
But senators returned several times to the one-two budget punch now facing the military: Having to operate under last year's budget resolution and a series of across-the-board spending cuts that just kicked in, known as the sequester.
One consequence of the crisis has been the Navy's decision to keep the carrier USS Harry S. Truman moored at Naval Station Norfolk instead of sending it to the Middle East. Analysts, critics and the media have dissected the move. The Wall Street Journal devoted a 900-word story to the subject, headlined "Unraveling Navy's Decision on USS Truman."
Navy leaders called it the best way to balance out their carrier force, while critics wondered if the Obama administration was attempting to score political points with a high-profile move.
The blunt-spoken Mattis dismissed the notion that the postponement would put more U.S. troops in harm's way. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., pressed Mattis on how fast the Truman could join the fight if American forces were pressed into combat in the Middle East.
Mattis said the Truman is on a 21-day, ready-to-deploy status, but could move out faster if needed. It would take another 14 days to transit the Atlantic and get into the combat theater. Even if the Truman cut that 21-day notice in half, it would still take 24 or 25 days to join the fight, Nelson pointed out.
Mattis was unfazed.
"That's correct, senator," he answered. "I can buy the time."
At the same time, Mattis stressed that the federal budget crisis is a major problem. He and McRaven said the readiness of U.S. forces will continue to erode if a solution isn't found.
Both said it would help immensely if Congress gave military leaders the flexibility to shift money to different accounts, even as they labor under tighter budgets and indiscriminate spending cuts. They also want budget certainty.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a new member of the panel, said he spent the previous day meeting new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and having lunch with Pentagon employees. Civilian furloughs under the sequester could reduce payroll by about $661 million in Virginia, he said.
Mattis was pressed by Sen. John McCain as to whether the cuts were "devastating." The general agreed, with a caveat.
"It is, senator, but I don't want the enemy to feel brave right now," he said. "I can still deal with them in my region."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun