I'm under no illusion, like all of you, about the daily threats facing this region or the current anxieties I know exist here in this region. These anxieties have emerged as the United States pursues diplomatic openings on some of the region's most difficult problems and most complex issues, including Iran's nuclear program and the conflict in Syria. And I want to also acknowledge and thank our partners, our allies, senior leaders in the U.K. here, and from other parts of the world who we are cooperating with in these areas dealing with these big problems.
Even as the United States has led efforts to counter chemical weapons in Syria and pressed for a political solution to the conflict, we have not diminished our focus on the challenges imposed by Iran. For decades, Iran has exported instability and violence across the region and beyond, as it continued to develop its nuclear program. Iran has been a profoundly destabilizing influence, and a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an unacceptable threat to regional and global stability.
Since coming to office five years ago, President Obama has had no higher priority in the region than preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He has pursued this goal through a comprehensive strategy with our international partners, combining diplomacy, unprecedented international economic pressure, and the resolve to keep military options on the table.
Two weeks ago, the president announced an interim deal in the P5-plus-one nuclear negotiations with Iran. It's only a first step, but it could be an important step. It halts any further expansion of Iran's nuclear program, begins to roll it back in important ways and provides sweeping access to verify unfettered verification of Iran's intentions. Its purpose is to facilitate a longer-term comprehensive solution and to ensure that Iran cannot use this period of negotiations to advance its nuclear program.
We have bought time for meaningful negotiation, not for deception. All of us are clear-eyed -- very clear-eyed -- about the challenges that remain to achieving a comprehensive nuclear solution with Iran. I know that Iran's nuclear program is only one dimension of the threats Iran poses in the region. I'm briefed virtually every day about these threats. That's why we remain committed to ballistic missile defense for our partners here in the region and for Europe.
No strategy is risk-free. Diplomacy takes courage. It takes vision. But our emphasis on diplomatic tools should not be misinterpreted. We know diplomacy cannot operate in a vacuum. Our success will continue to hinge on America's military power, the credibility of our assurances to our allies and partners in the Middle East that we will use it. They have bound the United States together with nations of this region for decades through administrations, all administrations, the administrations of both political parties, from Eisenhower to Obama. These commitments are not open for negotiation.
As secretary of defense, it is my responsibility to maintain America's key defense relationships. And it is my responsibility to ensure that the Department of Defense advances America's core security interests in the region. These security interests include: defending against external aggression; ensuring the free flow of energy and commerce; dismantling terrorist networks that threaten America or its allies; and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Our commitment to these core interests is absolute, and the interim agreement with Iran calls none of them into question. The Department of Defense will continue to maintain a strong military posture in the Gulf region, one that can respond swiftly to crisis, deter aggression, and assure our allies. DOD will not make any adjustments to its forces in the region or to its military planning as a result of the interim agreement with Iran.
As we have withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraq, are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, and rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific, we have honored our commitment to Gulf security by enhancing our military capabilities in the region.
- We have a ground, air and naval presence of more than 35,000 military personnel in and immediately around the Gulf.
- Two years after our drawdown from Iraq, the U.S. Army continues to maintain more than 10,000 forward-deployed soldiers in the region, along with heavy armor, artillery, and attack helicopters to serve as a theater reserve and a bulwark against aggression.
- We've deployed our most advanced fighter aircraft throughout the region, including F-22s, to ensure that we can quickly respond to contingencies. Coupled with our unique munitions, no target is beyond our reach.
- We've deployed our most advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to provide a continuous picture of activities in and around the Gulf.
- And we have fielded an array of missile defense capabilities, including ballistic missile defense ships, Patriot batteries, and sophisticated radar.
As part of our efforts to ensure freedom of navigation throughout the Gulf, we routinely maintain a naval presence of over 40 ships in the broader region, including a carrier strike group, and conduct a range of freedom of navigation operations. These operations include approximately 50 transits of the Strait of Hormuz over the past six months.
Earlier this year, we ramped up our minesweeping capabilities and added five coastal patrol ships to our fleet in this region. We are currently working on a $580 million construction program to support the expansion of Fifth Fleet capabilities.
Yesterday, I visited the Navy's new afloat forward staging base, the USS Ponce, a unique platform for special operations, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in areas where we do not have a permanent fixed presence. I'll also be meeting with U.S. personnel stationed at the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, where we have representatives from our GCC partners training and working together with us. We also maintain forces and assets at home and around the world ready to deploy to the region on a moment's notice.
The United States military has made this commitment in resources, personnel and capabilities because of our nation's deep and enduring interest in the Middle East. That will not change. Although the Department of Defense is facing serious budget constraints, we will continue to prioritize our commitments in the Gulf, while making sure that our military capabilities evolve to meet new threats. Even with new budgetary constraints, the United States will continue to represent nearly 40 percent of global total spending. The U.S. military will remain the most powerful in the world, and we will honor our commitments, and the United States is not retreating, not retreating from any part of the world.
United States capabilities are not in isolation of our partners' capabilities. Over the last three decades, we have helped Gulf nations become some of our most capable military partners. Going forward, the Department of Defense will place even more emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in order to complement our strong military presence in the region. Our goal is for our allies and partners in this region to be stronger and more capable in dealing with common threats.
A key vehicle for increasing partner capabilities is foreign military sales and financing. Over the last 20 years, the sale of advanced weapons has helped to shift the military balance in the region away from Iran and in favor of our Gulf partners, and this shift is accelerating. DOD has approved more than $75 billion in U.S. arms sales to GCC states since 2007. These sales during the past six years are worth nearly as much as those made previously totally in the previous 15 years.
During my last trip to the region, we finalized agreements with nearly $11 billion that will provide access to high-end capabilities, including F-15s, F-16s, and advanced munitions, such as standoff weapons. These are the most advanced capabilities we have ever provided -- ever provided to this region. We'll continue to ensure that all of our allies and partners in the region, including both Israel and the Gulf states, have these advanced weapons.
Upgrades in military hardware have enabled the United States military to work more closely, more effectively with our partners and allies in a wide variety of joint exercises, training, and collaborative planning. American men and women in uniform, serving alongside the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of our partners in the region, are staring down the same threats, which is why we take these activities very seriously.
This year, our successful training efforts have included:
- Our Eagle Resolve exercise, which began as a seminar in 1999. This year, hosted by Qatar, it included naval, land and air components. It included 12 nations, 2,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and 1,000 of their counterparts.
- Our Eager Lion exercise in Jordan this year involved 8,000 personnel from 19 nations, including 5,000 Americans from across the services.
- And here in Bahrain in May, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command hosted the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, which included 40 nations, 6,000 servicemembers, and 35 ships across 8,000 nautical miles, stretching from the Gulf to the Strait of Hormuz.
Because we must keep pace with emerging threats and technologies together in cyberspace. Last year, cyber attacks on Saudi Aramco and RasGas were a serious wake-up call to everyone. As many in this audience are fully aware, Saudi Aramco, which produces 3.5 billion barrels of oil per year, suffered an attack on 30,000 of its computers. Less than two weeks later, RasGas, which distributes about 36 million tons of liquefied natural gas each year, was taken offline for days.
Such an attack could happen to any of the nations represented here today. The United States will continue to help build the capacity of partners and allies to defend their critical infrastructure from cyber attack, especially major energy, infrastructure, and telecommunications facilities.
Over the last year, we've worked together with partners on strategy development, coordination, and other activities. This cooperation is set to intensify in the years ahead.
As we strengthen our bilateral relationships throughout the Gulf, we are also committed to advancing multilateral cooperation between our allies and partners, especially through the Gulf Cooperation Council. Nations are stronger -- not weaker, stronger -- when they work together against common interests. Closer cooperation between the GCC and the United States is in all of our countries' interests. The United States has been a force for advancing Gulf cooperation since the GCC was established more than 30 years ago. This will not only continue, but accelerate in the years ahead.
Our engagement with Gulf nations is intended to support and facilitate, not to replace, strong ties within the GCC. In the council's early days, Sultan Qaboos of Oman welcomed what was hard to imagine just years before. He said, “Gulf nations thinking together, talking together, planning together, and seeing together, instead of individually.”
The United States supports this vision and is committed to supporting the GCC as an anchor for regional stability. The United States will continue to work closely with each of our partners in the GCC, but we must remain together, and we must do more to strengthen multilateral defense cooperation.
In support of that goal today, I'm announcing several new initiatives.
First, in addition to our Gulf-wide joint exercises and training, DOD will work with the GCC on better integration of its members' missile defense capabilities. We applaud the efforts of many Gulf states to acquire new and enhanced missile defense capabilities in the face of growing regional missile threat.
But the United States continues to believe that a multilateral framework is the best way to develop interoperable and integrated regional missile defense. Such defenses are the best way to deter and, if necessary, defeat coercion and aggression.
To encourage this, we propose upgrading our regular air and air defense chiefs conference to include missile defense cooperation as a very distinct agenda item. We believe doing so will allow for continued progress in missile defense and will open the door to broader cooperation and burden-sharing within the GCC.
Second, we would like to expand our security cooperation with partners in the region by working in a coordinated way with the GCC, including through the sales of U.S. defense articles through the GCC as an organization. This is a natural next step in improving U.S.-GCC collaboration, and it will enable the GCC to acquire critical military capabilities, including items for ballistic missile defense, maritime security, and counterterrorism.
And, third, building on both this event and the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, I'm inviting our GCC partners to participate in an annual U.S.-GCC Defense Ministerial. This ministerial will affirm the United States' continued commitment to Gulf security, and it will allow the U.S. and GCC member nations to take the next step in coordinating our defense policies and enhancing our military cooperation. I propose that our inaugural ministerial take place within the next six months. All of these new and ongoing initiatives will help strengthen the GCC and strengthen regional security.
When I attended this dialogue in 2004, John Chipman described regional security arrangements here as a Rubik's cube that had only begun to turn. And that would take time, he said, to fall into place.
This process, as John knows, you all know so well, is still underway, but progress, individually and in concert, even with GCC nations' differences is impressive and ongoing. No one could have predicted that a coal and steel community would evolve into the European Union. And no one could have predicted that Thailand's mediation in a neighborhood dispute would evolve into ASEAN.
The GCC and its member nations will blaze their own path, their own way, but no one should underestimate the promise that has been nurtured here since 2004, not least by the United States, which has fought for and invested in the security of this region for many years.