Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told sailors aboard the country’s oldest aircraft carrier that the U.S. is committed to maintaining a fleet of 11 of the formidable warships despite budget pressures, in part to project sea power against Iran.

Panetta also told the crowd of 1,700 gathered in the hangar bay of the USS Enterprise that the ship is heading to the Persian Gulf region and will steam through the Strait of Hormuz in a direct message to Tehran.

Iran has warned it will block the Strait, a major transit point for global oil supplies, and bluntly told the U.S. not to send carriers into the Gulf. The U.S. has said it would continue to deploy ships there.