Vice Adm. Harry Harris Jr. will be promoted to admiral and then take command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on Wednesday. (Navy)
PEARL HARBOR, HAWAII — A new commander assumed leadership of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific on Wednesday at a time when the military is trying to shift its focus to the region even as it copes with the effects of the partial government shutdown and across-the-board federal budget cuts.
Adm. Harry Harris took command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during a ceremony at a Pearl Harbor pier. He takes over for Adm. Cecil Haney, who is leaving to lead U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska.
The partial federal government shutdown, which began Oct. 1 when Congress failed to pass a budget, made the ceremony slightly different from those in years past.
To save money, the Navy didn't pass out programs. Guests were encouraged to find a digital program online.
The chief of naval operations didn't fly out from Washington for the event as usual. Instead, Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of U.S. Pacific Command, presided over the ceremony.
Haney, in his departing remarks, said the Navy must continue to maintain a credible and capable force in the region to provide humanitarian assistance, deter potential adversaries and be ready to respond if deterrence fails.
"Given the consistent message of our political and military leadership, I can stand on firm ground and predict that the U.S. will remain a Pacific power far into the future," Haney said.
Harris said the Pacific Fleet would continue to carry out President Barack Obama's strategy of shifting attention to the region to reflect its importance in global trade and economic growth. The region — from the U.S. West Coast to India — is also home to some of the world's largest and fastest growing militaries.
"Our president and secretary of defense are clear. As a nation, we will rebalance to the Pacific and we will work closely with our allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region," Harris said.
Though Congress sent the president legislation Wednesday night to end the government shutdown, the stalemate has already complicated the military's effort.
The U.S. Pacific Command, which oversees the Pacific Fleet, had to postpone a meeting of defense chiefs from 25 nations scheduled in Honolulu next week. The annual meeting is an important part of the Pacific Command's efforts to maintain strong relationships with top military leaders in the region.
The across-the-board federal budget cuts that took effect in March, also known as sequestration, are also squeezing the Navy.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told the House Armed Services Committee last month that the Navy wouldn't be able to increase the number of ships it keeps in the Asia-Pacific region to about 60, from around 50 today, if sequestration continues.
Ralph Cossa, president of the nonprofit Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Harris is taking over the Pacific Fleet as many are waiting to see whether the Navy is able to boost its presence in the region as planned.
"People are now very concerned about whether (Obama) can put his money or his fleet where his mouth is," Cossa said.