By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Budget cuts have prompted the U.S. Navy to trim the number of warships deployed overseas and eroded the readiness of forces at home, undercutting its ability to respond rapidly to future crises around the globe, the top Navy officer said on Friday.
Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said the Navy had an aircraft carrier strike group and an amphibious assault ship with U.S. Marines in the Arabian Sea. A similar group of ships is in the Western Pacific, he said.
In the event of a crisis, however, the Navy has only one fully prepared carrier strike group and one amphibious assault group in reserve that it could rush to the scene. By comparison, the Navy a year ago had three of each that could have been used.
"The rest of the fleet is not ready to deploy with all the capabilities that are needed that we would normally have in our fleet response plan," Greenert told a Pentagon briefing.
The Navy has had to cut training and maintenance because of spending reductions to the point where many other ships and personnel are not fully certified for all the tasks they might ordinarily have to handle, he said.
The Navy chief voiced his concerns about readiness during a news conference to discuss the state of the Navy several months after the Pentagon was ordered to cut $37 billion in spending when it was nearly halfway through the fiscal year.
The across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, took effect in March after Congress and the White House failed to find another way to reduce government deficits.
"Since sequestration sort of set in ... we're down about 10 ships from ... several months ago, forward deployed," Greenert told reporters. "So there is an impact."
Greenert said the Navy was working with the Pentagon and Congress to try to shift some of its funding between accounts so it could be used to offset training shortfalls. A similar move helped the Air Force resume flying some of its grounded planes.
He said the Navy still had 95 combat ships deployed abroad to support the Afghan war, conduct routine operations and respond to other crises. The total fleet is 286 ships.
The number of warships in the Pacific and Mediterranean has risen slightly because of the U.S. strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific and instability in the Middle East. The number of U.S. combat vessels has fallen slightly around Africa and the Indian Ocean. The Navy no longer has any combat ships in Latin America.
He said the military had other vessels and air operations in Latin America and would occasionally send a combat ship there.
"But I'm not trying to tell you there isn't reduced presence," Greenert added. "There is reduced presence there."
SCRAMBLING TO CUT SPENDING
The Defense Department has been ordered to slash its spending plans after a decade of war that saw military budgets rise dramatically, contributing to huge federal deficits.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 called for the Pentagon to cut projected defense spending by $487 billion over a decade. It also approved an additional $500 billion in across-the-board spending cuts unless Congress and the White House could agree on an alternative package of cuts and revenues to reduce deficits.
No deal was reached, forcing the Pentagon to scramble to reduce spending. It cut training, grounded air squadrons and canceled ship deployments.
Some 680,000 civilian defense employees were hit with 11 days of unpaid leave through September 30, the end of the fiscal year, an effective 20 percent pay cut for 11 weeks.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured bases across the Southeast this week, delivering the sobering news that the department next year will likely face a further $52 billion in sequestration cuts, which were not factored into the Pentagon's proposed $526.6 billion budget request for 2014.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)