By Barbara Starr
While there have been months of dire predictions from the Pentagon about spending cuts, one of the most visible for the military could resonate across the Middle East at a time when uncertainty continues to grip the region.
The U.S. Navy may face the prospect of not being able to routinely keep two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region, which has been a longtime requirement for any ability to launch military campaigns in that part of the world.
The United States would have to scale back to one carrier in the region if Congress can't avoid deep automatic spending cuts, including some $500 billion directed at the Pentagon over 10 years, a U.S. military official directly familiar with the Navy's latest preliminary budget analysis tells CNN.
The Navy has kept an on-and-off presence with two carriers in the Gulf region during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
And tensions with Iran intensified a year ago as Tehran threatened a blockade of U.S. carriers into the Persian Gulf.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta extended a directive to keep two carriers in that region last summer.
Navy planners are examining how the ballet of carrier presence around the world would work with any massive cuts in spending, also known as sequester.
The math goes something like this: The Navy currently has 10 carriers it can deploy. For the past several years, two have been required for the Gulf region; one in the western Pacific and one always in transit to one of those regions.
With three to four carriers deployed at any one time, two carriers are in a training mode and the rest typically are in routine maintenance.
But with budget cuts, the Navy would not be able to keep up.
"It likely means the number of deployments drop because intermediate maintenance is slowed," the official said. "Think of it as the 10,000-mile check up on your car. We aren't even talking about the big stuff like refueling the nuclear system."
With these cuts, the official said, the Navy will "lose the ability to surge" its carrier force by quickly sending those ships to a crisis area, he said.
If a second carrier is needed in the Middle East, it might have to come from Asia, which is also a top national security priority for the Obama administration, potentially leaving the Asia region without a carrier for a period of time.
There is no firm estimate on how much money would be saved by cutting back to one carrier in the Persian Gulf.
But savings would come from maintenance cuts, personnel costs and even from a reduction in aircraft and flying for the air wings that train and deploy with a carrier.