The Bremerton-based aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, will deploy four months early to the Persian Gulf.
To thank sailors for their service, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited U.S. Naval Base Kitsap at Bremerton Wednesday.
Speaking to the more than 2,000 men and women of the Stennis strike group, Panetta said U.S. military needs them.
"I understand that its tough, we're asking an awful lot of each of you. But frankly, you are the best I have and when the world calls we have to respond," he told them.
Panetta will spend the rest of the day on base, meeting with the sailors and their families.
The deployment comes as tensions rise between Iran and Israel. Many consider it a strategic move to position the Stennis strike group in the Middle East to deter Israel from striking a nuclear-capable Iran.
According to retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, it's a way of telling the Israelis there is no need to attack.
The Stennis will be deployed for eight months, twice as long as originally planned.
The Stennis strike group returned to Bremerton in March after a seven-month deployment to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
Transcript: Media Availability with Secretary Panetta Aboard the USS John C. Stennis, Bremerton, Wash.
STAFF: Afternoon, sir. How are you?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Thank you very much. Good to be here. Spent some time at Fort Lewis a long time ago when I was in ROTC at Santa Clara. So ever since then I've spent a lot of time up here in Seattle.
From a defense point of view this is really a -- a community that is one of the -- one of the -- the very best in terms of supporting the military mission. There are a lot of different missions that are supported here, and I have tremendous thanks and respect for the people of Washington and the way they support our military mission.
So I'm glad to be here and happy to answer your questions.
Q: (Inaudible) -- shifted Navy or other assets to the Mediterranean or Syria region at this time?
SEC. PANETTA: Not at this time. We've -- we have deployed a force to the Middle East, and obviously the Stennis will -- will join that force. And the focus of that is to be prepared to deal with any contingency that develops in the Middle East.
Q: How much of this has to do with the conflict between Israel and Iran? Is this a positioning effort?
SEC. PANETTA: It deals with a lot of threats in the Middle East right now. Obviously Iran is one of those threats that we have to -- we have to be able to focus on and make sure that we're prepared to deal with any threats that could emerge out of Iran.
Secondly, it is the turmoil in Syria, and we're obviously following that closely as well.
There also are tanker threats that come from Iran that threaten some of the tanker -- the oil traffic that goes through the straits, and that's another concern.
So there are a number of issues in that region. It is -- you know, we're gone through the Arab spring there. The results of that present both challenges and opportunities. And all of that is the reason we maintain the force that we have in the Middle East.
Q: (inaudible) -- two-carrier requirement that was going to end in September and now is definite or is there a new end date?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, we're looking at what we need in order to deal with the potential challenges that we face in the Middle East. I can't give you a time frame as to how long we'll have to maintain that -- that presence. But clearly maintaining two carriers in that region was important to us in order to have the ability to confront any contingency.
Q: Do you have any more details about the kind of assistance the military can provide to Jordan or Turkey in the case of Syrian refugees?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, dealing with Syria, obviously we've tried to focus on three areas of importance. One is to do what we can to assist on the humanitarian effort, and I think the president pointed out we've done about $81 million, $82 million.
But we're also working with Jordan and with Turkey to try to deal with the refugee flows and try to help them as best we can.
Secondly is the -- the whole threat of chemical and biological weapons. There are sites in Syria. We're concerned about the security of those sites. So we're continuing to monitor those sites and work with both Turkey, as well as Jordan and Israel to ensure that -- that none of those weapons fall into the wrong hands.
STAFF: Couple more here, guys.
SEC. PANETTA: And let me just mention, the third one is the -- is obviously working with the opposition to try to give them what assistance we can. Basically we're providing nonlethal assistance at this time, but we're working with other countries to try to give them what support they can get in order to try to confront the Syrian army.
Q: Is there any possibility for a no-fly zone in the region at this point?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, we've developed contingency plans for all kinds of possibilities there. But as I -- as I said, that's not on the front burner right now.
Q: Sir, is the U.S. any closer to declaring whether or not the Haqqani Network is a terrorist organization?
SEC. PANETTA: That's -- that's a decision that the State Department has to make with regards to making a recommendation on that. And I think it's probably best one that is addressed to them.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you testified that you're having -- you've called for investigations into the system-wide review of PTSD diagnoses. Is that close to being completed, or when might we see results from that?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, obviously, it -- you know, the concern sprang out of a situation here at McChord that told us that there was some misdiagnoses that had taken place.
Actually as a result of that I've asked all of the services to review all of their diagnosis to see just exactly whether the same thing has occurred elsewhere, and that's -- that's ongoing right now.
Also, there is an ongoing investigation here as to what took place at McChord, making sure that -- that we do everything possible to find out what happened and try to make sure we're taking steps to avoid that happening in the future.
I sent, obviously, high level individuals from the Pentagon who have visited here to try to look at the situation. We've made some changes. I'm awaiting further recommendations as to what we can do to do everything possible to make sure that that kind of misdiagnosis doesn't take place.
STAFF: Last one. Anyone?
Q: (Inaudible) -- for this region. (Inaudible) -- Pacific Rim.
SEC. PANETTA: I would assume that Bremerton's going to stay busy for a long time to come as a result of having to focus and project our force into the Pacific. That's -- that's going to -- we're going to need the kind of shipyards and maintenance and backup that Bremerton provides.
STAFF: Thank you all very much.
SEC. PANETTA: Okay.
Prepared by Dept. of Defense.