More US Troops Are Deploying to the Middle East to Counter Iran

The sun sets behind a C-17 Globemaster III as soldiers wait in line to board the aircraft at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)
The sun sets behind a C-17 Globemaster III as soldiers wait in line to board the aircraft at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

The Pentagon is sending about 1,000 more U.S. troops, including an Air Force fighter squadron, to the Middle East to counter what officials say are "escalatory and troubling" threats from Iran.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announced the move Friday to "safeguard U.S. forces given the ongoing threat posed by Iranian forces."

"The additional deployment to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility is a prudent defensive measure and intended to reduce the possibility of future hostilities," he said. "I remain committed to ensuring U.S. personnel have the force protection resources they need and deserve."

President Donald Trump also notified lawmakers of the move, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Katie Wheelbarger told reporters Friday.

"Our policy has not changed," she said. "We do not seek conflict with Iran. We see these additional capabilities ... as defensive in nature."

The mission is still in the planning stages, but an official with knowledge of the operation said most of the additional troops will come from the Army. The boost will also include an Air Force fighter squadron and manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gathering aircraft.

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The mission: to protect U.S. forces in the region, said Navy Rear Adm. Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff.

"We believe Iran's threats are escalatory and troubling," Gilday said. "We have had multiple, credible reports that Iranian proxy groups intend to attack U.S. personnel in the Middle East."

The Defense Department will also extend the deployment of a Patriot missile battalion already assigned to the theater, bolstering the troop presence to about 1,500 U.S. personnel. Officials said they won't be based in Iraq or Syria.

"These capabilities are intended to enhance our defenses, harden our positions and provide additional ISR coverage to see the threat and to be able to illuminate the threat more clearly," Wheelbarger said.

The U.S. has "credible intelligence" as it observes Iran's recent activities, including attacks on foreign tankers off the coast of the Persian Gulf emirate of Fujairah, of the country's aim to destabilize global trade, the officials told reporters.

Last summer, Iranian leaders threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Now they've backed up those threats by posturing forces in an effort to intimidate the movement of international trade and energy sources, Gilday said.

There's also evidence of small modified fishing boats "capable of launching cruise missiles," he said.

The U.S. has "with very high confidence" tied the recent attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf to Iran, Gilday added, declining to reveal the source of that intelligence.

"We did attribute [the tanker attacks] directly to limpet mines, and those limpet mines to the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]," he said.

Several recent media reports said Pentagon and White House leaders were mulling sending anywhere between 2,000 to 10,000 additional U.S. troops to the region for deterrence purposes. Shanahan on Thursday disputed some of those reports.

"There is no 10,000, and there is no 5,000. That's not accurate," he said Thursday during a press pool.

The initial request to send more personnel was made by Central Command, according to Reuters. The additional troops and additional aircraft met CENTCOM Commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie's requests, Gilday said.

Officials have said the move is not in response to any new threat from Iran, but is aimed at reinforcing security in the region. Wheelbarger and Gilday would not comment on the type of fighter aircraft and support personnel that will be sent as plans are still in motion; the ISR aircraft could include a typical mix of RC-135 Rivet Joint, RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reapers, Gilday said.

As a show of force to Iran, U.S. forces have already begun multiple patrols and sorties in the region.

The aircraft carrier Lincoln's strike group teamed with Marines from the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge last week to carry out intensive training operations in the Arabian Sea. That included air-to-air combat and close-air support training. Marines also practiced boarding enemy ships.

The training was "aimed toward ... deterring destabilizing actions in this important region," Rear Adm. John Wade, commander of Carrier Strike Group 12 aboard the Lincoln, said in a news release.

Earlier this month, the B-52 Stratofortress bombers that deployed to the Middle East to counter the reported threats from Iran had begun patrols alongside F-15C Eagles and F-35A Joint Strike Fighters stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates.

Shanahan approved sending the amphibious transport dock Arlington and a Patriot missile battery to the region on May 10.

"Our policy remains an economic and diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to encourage a comprehensive deal that addresses a range of their destabilizing behavior in the region," Wheelbarger said.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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