WASHINGTON - The Navy will deploy the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and its strike group four months early and shift its destination to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, DOD officials said at the Pentagon July 16.
The deployment late this summer is in response to Central Command's requirement for an extended carrier presence, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said. The move affects 5,500 sailors aboard the Stennis and the Aegis cruiser USS Mobile Bay.
Last week, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta approved a request from Central Command commander Marine Corps General James N. Mattis to accelerate Stennis' deployment. "The decision will help support existing naval force requirements in the Middle East and reduce the gap caused by the upcoming departure of the USS Enterprise Strike Group," Little said. "It is in keeping with our long-standing commitments to the region."
Aircraft carrier strike groups provide commanders with ample and flexible air assets to enhance interoperability with partner nations and maintain strong military-to-military relations as well as respond to a wide variety of contingencies, Little said.
The Bremerton, Wash.-based Stennis strike group was due to deploy at the end of the year to U.S. Pacific Command. The group returned from duty in the Middle East in March.
The accelerated deployment to the Central Command area of responsibility is not aimed at any specific threat. "In keeping with Centcom's requirements, this is a very important region for our defense strategy," Little said. "We've had a presence in the region for decades and we have a range of interests that this extension of our capabilities will support."
Nor, he said, is the deployment a direct response to tensions with Iran. The U.S. military is "always mindful of the challenges posed by Iran, but ... this is not a decision based solely on the challenges posed by Iran," Little said.
Currently the USS Enterprise and USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike groups are deployed to U.S. Central Command. The USS Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group is due to relieve the Lincoln group shortly. The Stennis group will relieve Enterprise.
The Navy continues to operate at a high operational tempo in order to meet U.S. security needs around the world,. "Our deployment strain is as great as or greater today than it has been at any time in the past 10 years," a Navy official said.
Sailors and their families have been informed of the change, Little said. Navy officials looked at a wide range of options to ensure Navy commitments and combatant commander mission requirements are met and to lessen the impact of schedule changes.
The carrier strike group will be ready to deploy even given the accelerated timeline, Little said. "The U.S. Navy is well-equipped to ensure our sailors are trained and ready for this deployment," he said.
Navy leaders understand the operational and personnel impacts this accelerated deployment will have. These include training cycle adjustments, crew and family uncertainty and reductions to quality of life port visits.
As more information becomes available, the Navy will release it, officials said, noting defense leaders are "committed to keeping sailors and their families informed about current and future deployments to the best of our ability."