WASHINGTON - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delayed deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Middle East on Wednesday because of budget uncertainty, hours after warning that congressional inaction on financial matters threatened US security.
The Pentagon also announced it would seek a smaller-than-expected 1 percent pay increase for service members during the 2014 fiscal year that begins in October, another sign of fiscal pressures on the military after nearly a decade of growth.
The outgoing Pentagon chief delayed the deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and the USS Gettysburg guided-missile cruiser because of uncertainty over the department's finances, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
The two ships had been scheduled to leave their home ports in the United States bound for the Middle East later this week, officials said.
"Facing budget uncertainty ... the US Navy made this request to the secretary and he approved," Little said in a statement. "This prudent decision enables the US Navy to maintain these ships to deploy on short notice in the event they are needed to respond to national security contingencies."
The decision leaves the United States with one aircraft carrier in the tense Gulf region, the same force level it has had since December. Little said the US presence was "robust," with a mix of ships and warplanes that could respond to any contingencies.
The decision to delay the carrier deployment came hours after Panetta warned in one of his final speeches as US defense secretary that lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis was threatening US national security.
He told students at Georgetown University in Washington that Congress' failure to deal with the government's financial problems put the Defense Department on the brink of having to absorb $46 billion in spending cuts over seven months.
The cuts, which are due to go into force on March 1 unless Congress acts to avert them, would require the Pentagon to put as many as 800,000 civilian employees on unpaid leave for 22 work days, reduce Navy operations in the western Pacific by up to one-third and cut Air Force flying hours, Panetta said.