Hagel Tour Showcases US Gulf Commitment12/06 07:29
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) -- Standing on the massive deck of the Navy's USS
Ponce, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States is entering
the new nuclear pact with Iran "very clear eyed" and it remains to be seen
whether Tehran is serious about keeping its nuclear development peaceful.
Hagel's tour Friday of the Ponce gave him a platform to showcase America's
vow that its military commitment to the region remains strong and will not ebb
as a result of the Iranian deal.
And it also shined a spotlight on one of the Navy's new warship programs
that allows the U.S. to position a staging base for commando units or other
troops anywhere in the region without treading on any other nation's soil.
The next six months present a very wise opportunity "to see if the Iranians
are serious about following through with commitments they have said they would
make" about not developing their nuclear capabilities, Hagel told a crowd of
Navy sailors and civilian mariners on the Ponce, which was docked at the U.S.
But at the same time, he said, "We are not going to change any of our
military posture in this area or any part of the world during that six-month
period. We will keep the same kind of strong assets, the same exercises, the
same partnerships, the same focus on our strategic interests as we did before
we entered into this six month period."
His message, delivered in Iran's backyard, is meant to reassure allies in
the region that the nuclear pact with Iran will not diminish U.S. weapons sales
or the military's efforts to work and train with other nations.
His visit to Bahrain comes less than two weeks after international leaders
reached a deal with Iran that would freeze parts of its nuclear program in
exchange for some relief from crippling Western economic sanctions.
The deal, however, has escalated tensions in the region, where leaders worry
that it could embolden Iran and destabilize the area.
After his tour of the ship, he told crew members that the Ponce represents
America's ability to respond to threats in a region that he said remains
dangerous, combustible and unstable.
"It's as flexible and agile as any platform that we have," he said.
Launched last year as a test program, the Ponce was a former amphibious
transport ship that was retrofitted to become a floating staging base. For the
past year it has deployed through the Arabian Sea, participating in mine
countermeasure exercises with other nations. It also has conducted several
rescues of mariners, including one last month of four Bahraini men who were
adrift in a fishing skiff for two days about 30 nautical miles off Bahrain's
The Ponce's key ability, however, is to provide a base for special
operations forces or other troops that can then be quickly deployed into the
region. It can accommodate two helicopters and also carries the Navy's unmanned
drone, the Scan Eagle. And beginning next year, it is expected to get the
Navy's first new laser weapon system that uses an infrared beam to defend the
Navy leaders have concluded that the Ponce has been a successful experiment,
and have ordered the construction of four new ones at a projected cost of more
than $2.1 billion.
The first, called a Mobile Landing Platform, has been delivered to the fleet
and the second MLP is under construction. They will be used largely as piers to
support the transfer of equipment at sea. The other two ships will be larger
floating staging bases with the ability to carry more troop gear and equipment.
They will be used primarily for mine countermeasure and commando missions.
The third ship is also under construction, but because of budget constraints
the contract for the fourth ship is being delayed. It is scheduled to be
awarded in this fiscal year, but because no 2014 budget has been passed, the
U.S. is operating on a continuation of last year's spending plan so no new
contracts can be started.
While on the Ponce, Hagel also fielded questions from the crew. And he waded
into what has been a hot topic of debate among the U.S. armed services: their
There has been ongoing discussion about whether the Army, Navy, Air Force
and Marine Corp should have a common uniform, or at least standard camouflage
clothing. The idea has been met with opposition among the ranks, who value
their service identities.
On Friday, Hagel seemed to endorse some consolidation, saying the troops
don't need a lot of variation in their uniforms and there are ways to bring a
degree of commonality into the clothing. But at the same time, he said he
understands the desire of each service to have its own uniform, and he agreed
that some distinction is important.