Defense head Austin weighs warship needs in Pacific, Mideast

ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ (AP) - Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told sailors aboard the USS Nimitz Thursday that he hoped to avoid long-term marine deployments like the more than 10 months they have just spent at sea. When he made his first aircraft carrier visit as Pentagon chief, he recognized the demand for American warships around the globe as he grappled with security threats from China in the Pacific and Iran in the Middle East.
Austin stood in the ship's hangar bay and said he would soon make a decision whether to send a porter back to the Middle East, where the Nimitz had been. But he said there were times when the US decided not to have a porters strike group in the region.
"There will be gaps," he said. "As we do that, we do things to make sure we have resources in the right place so we can respond."
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The Nimitz, which left her home port of Bremerton, Washington, last April, has been at sea for nearly 300 days, including several weeks of pre-deployment exercises. By the time it gets home in March, the ship and its strike group - which includes the USS Princeton and USS Sterett - will have sailed around 99,000 nautical miles around the globe.
The ship's return home sparked renewed debate over whether the US should maintain an ongoing aircraft carrier presence in the Middle East as a deterrent to Iran. And it underscores the ongoing competition for naval vessels as the US and Pentagon focus on China as the primary threat that has required an escalating presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Last year, however, military commanders successfully advocated an air carrier presence in the Gulf region due to the threat from Iran and Iranian-backed militias. Just a year ago, the US sent more than 20,000 additional troops to the Middle East to counter escalating tensions with Iran, which culminated in early 2020 with the missile attack on American forces in Iraq.
The Nimitz's protracted deployment was largely due to the decision to leave them in the Middle East last year and serve as a deterrent to Iran this year. The sailors were on their way home at the end of last year after being detained in the Gulf region for a long time. But in early December, when the US withdrew troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, then incumbent defense chief Christopher Miller announced they would stay in the region and forced the ship to turn around and return to the Gulf.
On December 31, Miller announced that the ship would finally go home. It's California now.
President Joe Biden has announced plans for the Pentagon to review its national security strategy for China to recalibrate the US approach with Beijing. Biden's call for a new strategy review task force comes from the new administration's increasing recognition of the challenges the US is facing from China's modernized and more assertive military.
The review will weigh U.S. intelligence agencies, troop strength in the region, defense alliances with China, and more.
Speaking to reporters who traveled with him on the Nimitz, Austin said that on Biden's orders, he was conducting a detailed review of the position of U.S. Forces around the world to ensure that resources were aligned with national security priorities are.
His visit to the ship came on Austin's first voyage as Secretary of Defense. He spent two days on the west coast, visiting mostly military vaccination centers in San Diego and Los Angeles.
But when he spoke to sailors on the ship, he recognized their victims because they had not been in the family for so long. The retired army general, recalling his 18 months serving as a commander in Iraq, said, “I understand the stress this can be for families.
"Any potential adversary out there in this ocean or another must know, when they look at what you've achieved, that the US is very serious about our security commitments around the world," said Austin.
He added, however, "I don't want deployments like this to be the norm and so we need to look at this carefully, but you handled it very, very well."
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