Washington: Just as the Navy is planning to take on a larger strategic role in regional hot spots around the world, the service is considering massive fleet reductions — including a two-year delay on its new aircraft carrier — as part of its upcoming budget plan.

The Navy may cut nine cruisers and three amphibious ships as part of its soon-to-be released budget blueprint covering the next five fiscal years, sources say.

The Navy plans to deactivate four cruisers from the fleet in fiscal year 2013, with another five cruisers coming out of the fleet the next year, according to a preliminary version of the spending plan. The three amphibious landing ships will be deactivated along with the five cruisers.

The Navy is also considering changing its original strategy of buying one aircraft carrier every five years. It would instead buy one carrier every seven years.

Under the five year plan, the service would have bought its first carrier in fiscal 2013. With the new seven-year plan, that first purchase will take place in fiscal 2015. The Navy is essentially buying time to find a way to pay for those new carriers, according to sources familiar with Navy deliberations. The service’s 11-carrier group force would not shrink within the seven-year plan, sources say.

But the carrier fleet could well begin to shrink as a result of the plan. The soonest the carrier fleet would begin shrinking is 2025.

The situation is not that simple. The Navy is also considering retiring the USS George Washington, which would drop the total carrier force down to 10 groups in fiscal 2016. That would save the Navy from having to pay for that ship and its associated fighter wing almost immediately.

Former Navy Chief of Operations Adm. Gary Roughead laid the groundwork for that plan, when he reorganized parts of the carrier fleet in August.

The ship cuts and carrier delays outlined in the draft budget plan are far from final, as the White House and Capitol Hill continue to debate future defense spending levels.

But if these reductions do make it into the Navy’s final spending plan, the sea service may find itself at a disadvantage just as it is preparing to take on a larger strategic role in the world.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the Pentagon is beginning to shift focus from Southwest Asia to the Western Pacific. U.S. military leaders are already looking to the Navy and the Air Force to shoulder the brunt of those future operations. Some on the Hill and inside the Pentagon are already questioning whether the Navy is up to that larger role.

These cuts will not be an easy set of decisions to ram through Capitol Hill. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has already pledged to increase the shipbuilding budget if he is president, reflecting deepening unease among Republicans over a worrying combination of lowered readiness rates and a slowly shrinking Navy. And the Marines, who would lose those three amphibious ships, are a formidable presence on the Hill. In fact, the Marines recently created a special task force to push for more amphibious ships. They and their friends in mufti are unlikely to sit idly by while the service loses ships.