NAVAL BASE KITSAP, Wash. -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Stennis that they and their ship, and others like it, are the "heart and soul" of the nation's defense strategy, Aug. 22.
"All of you deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the great job the Stennis has done in the past and will do in the future," he said.
Last month, the secretary approved a request by Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, to deploy the Stennis and its strike group four months early, and to the Middle East. The Stennis carrier strike group, which returned from its last Middle East deployment in March, previously was set for deployment to the Pacific near the end of the year.
Speaking to some 2,300 sailors assigned to the carrier - about 85 percent of the ship's strength, according to Stennis officers - the secretary said he understands the strain a high operating tempo can cause for service members and families.
"It's tough," he said. "We're asking an awful lot of each of you. And frankly, you are the best I have -- and when the world calls, we have to respond."
The secretary said he also recognizes the strain back-to-back deployments put on military families. "Your families are as important to our ability to maintain a strong defense as anybody else. ... Their support and their love are what make sure that we are a strong fighting force," Panetta said.
As he normally does when he visits troops, Panetta outlined for the sailors the defense strategy announced early this year, describing his four priorities in setting that strategy: maintain the world's best military; cut defense spending judiciously, not across the board; examine all aspects of military spending to determine those cuts; and keep faith with service members now in uniform by preserving their pay and benefits.
The current defense strategy, he told sailors, will meet those priorities and shape a smaller, agile, technologically advanced force that can deploy to meet any threat, while maintaining a global presence and the potency to defeat more than one enemy at a time. He added the Stennis carrier strike group exemplifies just the high-tech, deployable capability the strategy calls for.
As defense secretary, Panetta noted, he can call on the world's most advanced military systems: aircraft carriers, fighters, bombers and weapons systems of every kind.
"But none of it, none of that, is worth a damn without men and women in uniform who serve this country," he added. "You are the heart and soul of our national defense. ... That's why I'm here, to thank you for what you do to help keep America the strongest military power in the world."
After speaking with the sailors, Panetta told reporters the Stennis strike group will guard against a range of threats in Centcom's area of responsibility, which includes the Persian Gulf.
"Obviously, Iran is one of those threats," he said, noting that Iran's nuclear ambitions are one concern, while its threat to oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz is another.
"Secondly, it is the turmoil in Syria," he said. "We're obviously following that closely as well. ... There are a number of issues in that region." The nation's focus on Syria is concentrated in three areas, he added:
-- Humanitarian assistance and working with Jordan and Turkey to manage refugee issues;
-- Monitoring Syrian chemical and biological weapon stockpiles; and
-- Offering nonlethal assistance to opposition forces.
The secretary said the current two-carrier U.S. presence in the Gulf region is not set to end at any particular time. "Clearly, two carriers ... [are] important to us in order to have the ability to confront any contingency," he added.