MANAMA, Bahrain (NNS) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel started his first full day in Bahrain this week by visiting service members and civilian mariners aboard the USS Ponce, which he called "a purely remarkable ship."
The Ponce was first commissioned in 1971, designated as an amphibious transport dock ship. In 2012, U.S. Central Forces Command requested an afloat forward staging base, and the Ponce was reconfigured with a well deck, helicopter operations deck, and advanced command and control capabilities. Currently crewed by 55 Navy sailors and around 120 civilian mariners, the ship can transport and support some 250 other passengers in support of 5th Fleet operations.
"It's as flexible and agile as any platform we have," the secretary said. "It represents ... the future of our naval operations."
In a region Hagel termed "dangerous ... combustible and unstable," he said a steady American presence as exemplified by the Ponce is a reassurance to allies.
During his speech tomorrow at the Manama Dialogue here and in meetings with partner nations' leaders over the next few days, Hagel said he will emphasize the United States' commitment to strengthening relationships in every region of the world.
"I will assure our partners that we're not going anywhere," he said.
Senior Navy officials spoke on background to reporters traveling with Hagel, explaining the Ponce's capabilities and missions. The ship can embark, coordinate and integrate operations among forces from other countries and other service branches, officials said. They added that mine warfare operations are a key mission for the ship, with bilateral and multilateral anti-mine exercises scheduled as often as every few weeks.
The Ponce's helicopter deck allows it to land and refuel two Army Apache helicopters at once, one official pointed out. With an Army Apache battalion based in Kuwait, he added, the Ponce's presence offers a flexible refueling option to extend the helicopters' reach.
"You are helping to shape much of the future for this part of the world," Hagel told the Ponce's crewmembers. "I want you to know that we appreciate that."
Turning to defense funding, Hagel told his audience that Congress will be back in session next week and he hopes for an agreement on the defense budget.
The secretary conveyed his own and President Barack Obama's holiday greetings and thanks to the troops, and expressed appreciation for their families' support.
"This is not easy for your families, and we know that, with the sacrifices they make," Hagel said.