LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON (AP) -- American warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea remain ready to strike Syria if ordered, but impending cuts in the defense budget will make that kind of operation far more difficult in the years to come, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Wednesday.
Mabus said that even now fewer ships are going to sea, fewer Navy pilots are flying and fewer Marines are training because of the automatic, across-the-board cuts that would slash more than $50 billion from the 2014 defense budget and $500 billion over 10 years. And he warned that if those reductions continue, the military response could be compromised in future crises like Syria.
"Whatever course of action our nation decides to take on Syria, I do know this: The maritime options are flexible and they are significant and they are swift and they are sovereign," Mabus told an audience at the National Defense University. "But unless we act to address the damage of continuing resolutions and sequestration, they are options which may be limited or just not available in the future."
His comments came on the heels of President Barack Obama's order Tuesday that the military must maintain its presence in the Mediterranean to keep pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad and to be ready to strike if needed. The military decision is in conjunction with efforts to forge a diplomatic solution that includes putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
The two-pronged U.S. strategy is aimed at deterring Syria's use of chemical weapons on its own people. The administration says that a chemical weapons attack launched by the Assad regime in the suburbs of Damascus last month killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children.
The Navy presence currently includes four warships armed with dozens of Tomahawk missiles, a Navy amphibious assault ship carrying Marines and two aircraft carrier strike groups -- numbering as many as 10 ships -- in the broader region.
While the Navy has routinely kept warships in the Mediterranean, including as part of an effort to provide missile defense for allies and U.S. interests in the area. But, budget restrictions have already forced the military to cut the number of aircraft carriers permanently in the region to one. The second one is only there temporarily because of the ongoing tensions in Syria.
Mabus said Wednesday that the persistent Navy presence in the Mediterranean gave Obama the flexibility to have forces ready quickly to launch strikes without having to move troops and ships in from distant bases. That flexibility, he said, "will almost certainly be compromised and diminished" as the budget cuts continue.
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