By Barbara Starr
CNN Pentagon Correspondent
WASHINGTON (CNN) - A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier will head to the Persian Gulf four months earlier than scheduled as part of a Pentagon plan to maintain a beefed-up U.S. military presence in the region, according to Pentagon officials.
The USS John C. Stennis will set sail in September and remain overseas until February 2013. As CNN's Security Clearance first reported last week, the Obama administration and military had been debating whether to keep a second carrier in the region beyond a 2010 mandate that was set to expire in September.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta approved the deployment at the request of Gen. James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Monday. The Stennis had been scheduled to deploy to the Pacific Command area.
The action essentially keeps two aircraft carriers in the region for the next several months. One option that had been before Panetta would have kept two carriers on station until the end of 2013, but he approved the more limited action with the option of reviewing an extension in the spring.
In addition to the Stennis, the USS Mobile Bay will join it, as well as the destroyer Paul Hamilton which will deploy straight to the Gulf instead of spending time in the Pacific region.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the deployment was not a direct response to the crisis in Syria or rising tensions with Iran.
"This is about a wide range of security interests," he said.
The military is "mindful of the challenges posed by Iran, but ... this is not a decision based solely on the challenges posed by Iran," Little said.
By Barbara Starr
A U.S. warship designed as a floating base for naval special forces is scheduled to transit through the Suez Canal for the first time as early as Friday, Navy officials say.
The USS Ponce, an amphibious transport ship, recently finished a complete overhaul that now has it configured to operate as a floating staging platform for the military. It is being launched into the oil shipping lanes at a time of heightened tensions across the region, U.S. Navy officials told CNN.
The ship began approaching Suez on Thursday and is expected to enter the canal shortly on its way to the Persian Gulf. FULL POST
By Mike Mount, Senior National Security Producer
In what is shaping up to be a classic congressional right vs. left fight over defense and war funding, both the House and Senate are gearing up to battle over some expected and not-so-expected items in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its version of the bill, showing its hand to members of the House of Representatives on what it felt should be authorized for military spending.
The act authorizes spending limits and sets defense policy, but it does not actually appropriate the funds.
The committee version must still pass a full Senate vote. The House signed off on its bill this month. While a date has yet to be announced, both the final House and Senate versions will go through extensive negotiations to hammer out a final version of the legislation, expected in the fall.
Both bills have numerous amendments that will be debated and fought over in the coming months. Keep an eye on these five if you like political fireworks.
A poster of the American soldier being held captive by the Taliban since June 2009 is on display in the Defense Department's CENTCOM command center. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned the display of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, during a briefing with reporters Thursday, to highlight how the soldier's fate is always on the military's mind.
"I can assure you that we are doing everything in our power, using our intelligence resources across the government, to try to find, locate him," General Martin Dempsey said at a Pentagon press conference.
Bergdahl's parents said this week that the U.S. had been negotiating with the Taliban to exchange their son for five detainees at Guantanamo. It was the first public admission of the fact their son was part of the negotiation. The POW's parents gave the interview in part because of frustration about the lack of progress in freeing their son. FULL POST
By Nasir Habib reporting from Islamabad
Top U.S. and Pakistani military officials held face-to-face meetings in Islamabad on Wednesday in the first high-level talks since NATO airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in November.
Gen. James Mattis and Gen. John Allen discussed "bilateral matters, professional interests and the emerging geo-strategic situation of the region" with Gen. Khalid Shameem Wynne, the chairman of Pakistan's joint chiefs of staff, according to a statement from the Pakistani military.
Mattis is the chief of the U.S. Central Command, while Allen commands the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The meeting lasted "for some time," the Pakistani statement said.
Read the whole story here
By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo
The U.S. military is still not clear where it would hold al Qaeda's most-wanted terrorist should he be caught, U.S. military officials said Tuesday.
Following up on a question asked of Adm. William McRaven, special operations commander, at his confirmation hearing last year, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, asked the admiral again: If al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri were caught tonight in Pakistan, where would he be placed for long-term detention?
"Last year, you said you weren't sure what we would do in that circumstance," Ayotte said. "Has anything changed since then?"
"Nothing has changed since then," McRaven responded.
By Jennifer Rizzo
The top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East singled out Iran as the only country actively trying to destabilize and spark violence in the region.
"Iran presents the most significant regional threat to stability and security," Gen. James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. "Its reckless behavior and bellicose rhetoric have created a high potential for miscalculation."
By Barbara Starr
The U.S. military has calculated it could take more than 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria's chemical warfare facilities if they were at risk of being looted or left unguarded, CNN has learned.
The conclusion comes from a military analysis of options for Syria that the Department of Defense is preparing for president should he request it, according to a senior U.S. official.
Securing Syria's chemical sites would be "extraordinarily difficult" given the scope of the problem, a Department of Defense official told CNN. FULL POST
By Nick Paton Walsh
The Taliban have met with U.S. officials to discuss possible peace talks, but do not want to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, a Taliban spokesman said Tuesday.
The spokesman's comments, rejecting a key American condition, could potentially derail American efforts for Afghans to reach a negotiated end to the decade-long war.
In an e-mail response to questions from CNN, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied previous reports that the Taliban had been invited to meet with the Karzai government in Saudi Arabia, saying that talks with what he called a "puppet" government were pointless.
Read more of Nick's reporting here