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By Dominique Chabrol and Joris Fioriti

23 Jan 12. Pentagon budget cuts will not threaten the US aircraft carrier fleet and the Navy plans to keep 11 afloat, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Saturday.

“The carriers play a major role in our force, not only today but they will play an important role in the future. You’re part of what keeps our force agile and flexible and quickly deployable and capable on taking on any enemy anywhere in the world,” Panetta told about 1,700 sailors.

“It’s for that reason that the president of the US and all of us working at the Department of Defense, have decided that it is important to maintain our carrier force at full strength and that means we’ll be keeping our 11 carriers in our force,” Panetta said to a swell of cheers in one of the ship’s hangars.

The Pentagon has to find $487 billion in spending cuts in the next decade. Experts and analysts had speculated in recent weeks over the upkeep costs for aircraft carriers as Panetta will have to deliver a belt-tightening budget in the near future. He said maintaining the carriers, each of which carry near 80 aircraft and helicopters, was key to US military projection in the Pacific and Mideast, but indicated that the Navy would face some cost-cutting.

“We have to look at every area,” Panetta said.

Panetta said that the Enterprise, which is headed to the Middle East in March, would pass through the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic shipping lane that Washington foe Iran is threatening to close.

“It will be going through the Strait of Hormuz,” Panetta said, noting that two US carriers — the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Abraham Lincoln — were already in the Gulf region.

“Obviously we are fully prepared to deal with any contingency in that part of the world,” Panetta said.

“We’ll continue to work with the international community, we’ll continue to put sanctions on them,” he said, referring to Iran.

“We’ll continue to make those messages clear. The most important way to make those messages clear is to show that we are prepared, that we are strong, that we’ll have a presence in that part of the world,” Panetta added. (Source :AFP)

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