MANAMA, Bahrain — 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. base here.
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 coast.
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 ship.
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 uniforms.
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.