NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WVEC) -- Hours after the USS Nitze launched retaliatory Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebel radar sites in Yemen, the Navy's top civilian leader had high praise for the destroyer's crew.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said it was very important that the United States respond, following a pair of unprovoked, if ultimately unsuccessful attempted missile strikes by the Houthis against the Norfolk-based guided missile destroyer USS Mason.

"The Nitze was there, it was already there," he said. "We didn't know this was going to happen. We didn't know we were going to be be attacked. But when we were, we had the ships, we had the sailors there to take action."

Mabus, who is now the longest-serving Navy secretary since World War I, appeared at Newport News Shipbuilding. While there, he also discussed a recent Navy decision to send the USS Ramage repair job to Mississippi, a decision which will result in an unplanned 9 1/2 month deployment for the crew, and, layoffs at Hampton Roads' private ship repair shipyards.

"One of the things we're trying to do is put more work in the local repair units," he said. "We've been working on this for a year or so. And you're going to have to be competitive to get the work."

Mabus also acknowledged that the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, under construction at Newport News, will not be commissioned this Fall as planned. Mabus said the ship is still undergoing testing. He said he is confident the Ford will be delivered to the Navy "in the not too distant future." But he did not offer a specific date.