KUWAIT CITY // The US military will retain a "strong presence" in the Middle East despite a strategic shift to Asia, the US defence secretary said yesterday.
The United States plans to deploy a majority of its naval fleet to the Asia Pacific along with other advanced weaponry but Leon Panetta insisted that a robust American force would remain in place in the Middle East.
Mr Panetta spoke to reporters aboard his plane before arriving in Kuwait City to discuss bolstering security ties amid tumult in the region and tensions with Iran.
"Let me assure you that the United States is strong enough that we can maintain a strong presence in the Middle East as well as in the Pacific," he said.
He acknowledged that the United States had to be "flexible" in managing its forces in a more austere era and that it would have only one aircraft carrier in the Middle East for about two months to allow for maintenance work on another carrier, the USS Nimitz.
The American military still had nearly 50,000 troops and warships positioned across the region, he said.
"But in the end, I am very confident that we're going to be able to maintain the ships and forces we need in order to respond to any contingency."
The United States has deployed more ships and aircraft in the Gulf over the past year after Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if western countries boycotted Iranian oil exports.
During his visit to Kuwait, which ends today, Mr Panetta planned to meet Kuwaiti leaders as well as some of the 13,500 US troops stationed in the country.
His visit is the first to the emirate by a Pentagon chief in five years.
"We share a history of cooperation that goes back to the First Gulf War," in 1991 that ousted Iraqi occupation forces, Mr Panetta said, calling Kuwait an "important partner".
"I look forward to discussing with the government of Kuwait how can we enhance that cooperation in the face of regional security challenges in the area," he said.
"Our presence in Kuwait and throughout the Gulf helps enhance the capabilities of partner nations, deters aggression and helps ensure that we're better able to respond to crises in the region."