Dunford Sheds Light on Threats That Prompted Deployment of Troops to Middle East

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listens to questions during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, May 9, 2018. (DoD/U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listens to questions during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, May 9, 2018. (DoD/U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

The dispatch of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, B-52 Stratofortress bombers and additional troops to the Persian Gulf to deter new and varied threats from Iran came amid threats of a "campaign-like" series of attacks against U.S. interests in the region, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said Wednesday.

U.S. intelligence had seen threads of what the Iranians were planning for some time, he said at a Brookings Institution forum, adding, "In the last week of April, I began to see more clearly things I'd been picking up over a period of months."

Dunford did not go into specifics while giving what is likely the most detailed account thus far of the reasons behind the U.S. buildup, but said that what the intelligence showed is "qualitatively different" from past Iranian threats.

"It was multiple threat streams that were, perhaps, all coming together in time," he said. "What's not new is threat streams [from Iran]."

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"What was new was a pattern of threat streams" extending from Yemen through the Gulf region and into Iraq, he explained.

"Something that looked more like a campaign than an individual threat" raised the alarm, Dunford said. It was a "more widespread, almost campaign-like perspective for the Iranians" that had to be countered, he added.

To deter the new threat, Dunford said he also had to deal with what he called a "gap of perception" in the Iranian leadership on the will of the U.S. to respond with force.

Before National Security Adviser John Bolton announced May 3 that the carrier Lincoln and its strike group were being sent to Iran, a message was sent to Iran "just to make sure that we would hold them accountable should something take place in the region," Dunford said. "We wanted to mitigate the risk of miscalculation.

"People can question the veracity of the intelligence," Dunford said, but since early May "there have been ships that have been hit with mines, there have been [unmanned aerial vehicle] strikes, there have been rocket strikes in the proximity of the United States embassy in Iraq."

At the Brookings session, Dunford, who will be retiring later this year, also addressed a wide range of issues that his successor will have to face as the principal military adviser to the president.

One area that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who has been named by President Donald Trump as his choice to be the next Joint Chiefs chairman, will have to focus on is improving the military-to-military relationship with China, Dunford said.

Efforts over the years to enhance communication and dialogue with China's military have not met with much success, he said. "I would tell my successor that that would be an area where I think we've made some progress but perhaps we're not where we need to be in terms of our military-to-military relationship with China."

On North Korea, Dunford said the cutback in high-end military exercises with South Korea has not impacted the readiness of U.S. Forces Korea to "fight tonight."

"I can tell you right up front that's a capability we continue to have," he said. He acknowledged that the U.S. had "reduced the profile of exercises on the peninsula" and "gone to what I would describe as a mission-essential task."

"At squadron and battalion level, there has been no change," Dunford said. "I am very confident today that we have not compromised" the ability to deter North Korea.

NATO is an area in which Dunford appeared to show some pride over what he said were improvements in the alliance's ability to deter Russian aggression since he became Joint Chiefs chairman in 2015.

Though debate is continuing within NATO over how best to deter Russia and over the member states' contributions to the collective defense, "I would argue that as an alliance NATO is stronger than it was four years go," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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