Several U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships are now on stand-by off the coast of Yemen to assist with an evacuation of U.S. personnel should ongoing violence in the country prompt the State Department to make that order.
The two ships are patrolling the waters as the Houthi Muslim rebels have taken control of the Yemen capital after the country's president and prime minister resigned under pressure Thursday.
"They are currently in the Red Sea, standing by to protect America citizens in Yemen if necessary. It is obviously a very fluid situation and a very tense situation which we and the State Department are monitoring," Hawkins said. "The State Department will make the decision about whether to evacuate or draw down U.S. embassy personnel.
The amphibs are carrying elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a special task force configured for expeditionary and amphibious operations. A MEU usually consists of about 2,000 Marines.
The Iwo Jima and Fort McHenry, both part of an Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG, are home ported at Naval Station Mayport, Florida. The ships arrived in the 5th fleet area of responsibility covering much of the Middle East, several weeks ago, Hawkins said.
"They arrived in the Red Sea two days ago. They've been operating in the [U.S. Central Command] area of responsibility since January 9," he added.
The Iwo Jima, an 844-foot long amphib able to carry more than 1,500 Marines, can reach speeds of 22 knots, launch helicopters and carry ship-to-shore connector vehicles called Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs.
A typical air wing for a ship like the Iwo Jima includes four CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters, six AV8B Harrier attack aircraft, three UH-1N Huey helicopters, four AH-1 Super Cobra helicopters and 10 MV-22 Osprey aircraft, Hawkins said.
The third ship that is part of the ARG, the USS New York, is now in the Arabian Gulf, Hawkins added.
Yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Yemeni government official and Houthis rebels were talking to one another about a possible ceasefire.
"This is a very fluid situation on the ground. It's a challenging situation on the ground. As I mentioned, the parties are talking. We're continuing to encourage that, having discussions about a ceasefire; obviously, that hasn't been abided by. But we're not going to get steps ahead of where we are. Things continue to develop every single day," Psaki told reporters.
Yemen has been a focal point in the U.S. war on terror as it is home to members of Al Qaeda and its off shoot, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Penninsula, or AQAP, which took responsibility for the shooting in Paris this month.
The U.S. has carried out several drone strikes in Yemen over the years, targeting terrorists from the air on multiple occasions. Yemen is believed to have several loosely-governed tribal areas which have proven attractive to Al Qaeda members and their sympathizers.
"I would say that throughout the last several weeks and days, and long before that, our ongoing counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen has continued. As you know, we believe that's it's in our national security interest to have a presence there, and a strong presence there, which is one that we continue to have. But obviously, we weigh the safety and security of our personnel as very highly in this internal discussion," Psaki added.
There has also been widespread concern among U.S. officials that the Shiite Houthis rebels might be receiving support from the Shiite-led Iranian government.
"We have talked in the past about the fact that we believe the Houthis have concerning relations with Iran, and we're certainly aware of reports of a variety of support provided by Iran to the Houthis, but I don't have any more details or specifics on that at this point in time," Pskaki said.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at email@example.com