There will be more periods next year where the U.S. will not have aircraft carriers in the both the Middle East and East Asia regions, a top Navy official said during a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Navy Vice Adm. John Aquilino told the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee that there would be times next year where the Middle East would not have a single U.S. aircraft carrier and its accompanying strike group.
"There are in the next year, some periods similar to what we are seeing in the [Central Command area of responsibility] now," said Aquillno.
It is not clear when the gaps would occur, and for how long.
"I would prefer to tell you that offline, if that's OK, for classification purposes," he told committee Chairman J. Randy ForbesJames (Randy) Randy ForbesDaschle Group hires first GOP lobbyist Overnight Defense: US sanctions NATO ally Turkey over Russian defense system | Veterans groups, top Democrats call for Wilkie's resignation | Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon board Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon advisory panel MORE (R-Va.).
It is the first time a Navy official has acknowledged publicly there could be future gaps in the U.S.'s simultaneous carrier presence in both the Middle East and East Asia.
Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told lawmakers the Navy could surge assets in a crisis.
"If the balloon goes up ... we will figure out how to get that done," he said.
However, Forbes said, "Gaps in carrier coverage threaten to undermine both the U.S. ability to deter conflict and respond to crises.
“Every American president for 70 years has asked, 'Where are the carriers?' in the moment of crisis. When our next president asks a similar question, the response may be silence," he continued.
Navy officials said the gaps were occurring due to a lack of available aircraft carriers.
Navy officials said the Navy currently has 10 aircraft carriers, despite the need for 11 aircraft carriers to execute its missions. Of those 10, only five are available for deployments.
To avoid carrier gaps, the Navy needs three aircraft carriers to support the deployment of one: One getting ready to deploy, one deployed, and one coming back home.
The Navy has also been strained over the last decade by repeated deployments during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which have caused delays in major maintenance. The delays have been further exacerbated by budget cuts.
The lack of available aircraft carriers has also placed a strain on sailors, necessitating longer deployment for individual ships.
The gaps represent a further step away from a U.S. policy, which began this year, to maintain a continuous carrier presence in both areas.
Currently, for the first time since 2007, the U.S. does not have at least one aircraft carrier in the Middle East to execute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to deter Iran from nefarious behavior.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt left the Persian Gulf early last month, and the USS Harry S. Truman is not expected to arrive until the winter.
The Navy even went to a two-carrier presence in 2010, to simultaneous help execute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deter Iran from behavior such as closing the Strait of Hormuz, a vitally important international waterway.
That "2.0 carrier presence" ended it in 2013 under strain from defense budget cuts, and went down to one carrier.
There was a similar four-month gap earlier this year in the Asia Pacific, when the USS George Washington left Japan in mid-May and its replacement, the USS Ronald Reagan did not arrive until the fall.
Navy officials acknowledged the importance of having forward-deployed aircraft carriers.
"There is no replacement for a carrier strike group in any phase of any type of conflict,” said Navy Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, the Navy's director for air warfare.
"Carriers are at the very core of our maritime strategy for deterring conflict," Stackley said.
An 11th carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is not expected to be ready until 2021.
"Right now we are operating at a pace that's faster than they were designed," added Navy Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, program executive officer for aircraft carriers.
Stackley acknowledged, “We require 11 carriers to meet the full range of operational requirements. … We are at 10 today. … Until we get back up to 11 carriers, we will be operating at a deficit."
"We are an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world," Forbes quipped.
-- Updated at 3:25 p.m.