SAN DIEGO (NNS) -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates thanked the crew of the USS Higgins Aug. 12 for their service during a recent deployment that took them around the world.
The secretary has a personal connection to the ship. In 1992, he was among the delegation that received the bodies of CIA station chief Bill Buckley and Marine Corps Lt. Col. William Higgins, who were murdered by terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon.
USS Higgins carries the name of the Marine officer. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer completed a seven-month deployment that took them on ballistic missile defense duty in the Mediterranean to the relief effort in Haiti.
Higgins was battling terrorists during his duty in Lebanon, and the crew of USS Higgins carries on his fight. "We have taken losses for a long time, but you all are part of that fight," Gates said.
But unlike the terrorists who just want to destroy, USS Higgins also has another mission. "You are also part of humanitarian assistance such as your mission in Haiti," the secretary told the Sailors.
Higgins was the first Navy ship in Port-au-Prince after the devastating earthquake in January. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed more than 200,000 Haitians, and the Higgins helped to bring order to the chaos.
The destroyer also can serve in other areas and with other missions. "The work you are doing against drug runners, against pirates – all of it is important," Gates said.
Gates held a question-and-answer session with the crew. The ship was involved in European missile defense on its deployment to the Mediterranean. The secretary said Navy ships will be a key component of the joint program to defend the United States and its allies from the threat of missile launches by rogue states. North Korea and Iran are particularly dangerous, and the United States is using Aegis ships to create a missile defense capability around Japan and the Middle East. "When we have the Aegis destroyers we can surge wherever we need to," he said.
The ships give the United States missile defense capability right now, the secretary said. Eventually, the Aegis capability will move to land, he added, but he said he doesn't see that happening in the near future.
Sailors asked the secretary about his efficiency initiative. On Aug. 9, the secretary announced he will close two defense offices and shutter the U.S. Joint Forces Command. He also said he will reduce the amount of money going to contractors and eliminate positions for 50 general and flag officers and 150 senior executive service civilians.
"If this works the way I want it to, you get the money," the secretary told the crew. "The whole idea is to reduce contractors, staff [and] headquarters and cut the overhead so we can invest properly in force structure and in force modernization. The whole purpose is to shift money basically from the bureaucracy – the tail – to the tooth – and you all are the tooth."
The Sailors also wanted the straight talk on the WikiLeaks situation. Gates said the illegal release and posting of classified documents on the website poses "very serious consequences." The documents contain the names of many Afghans who have helped the coalition and they contain a huge amount of information showing the tactics, techniques and procedures used by coalition forces.
"We know from intelligence that both the Taliban and al-Qaida have given direction to comb those documents for information, so I think the consequences are potentially very severe," he said.
The Higgins will deploy again in January for the Persian Gulf.