Just hours after being sworn in, newly minted Defense Secretary Mark Esper addressed heightening military tensions with Iran, raising the possibility that U.S. military assets may be called upon to escort civilian vessels through the region for safety.
Esper, who became defense secretary Tuesday following confirmation by the Senate, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that his priorities regarding the newly named "Operation Sentinel," the deployment of military assets off the coast of Iran and elsewhere in the region, are twofold. The Pentagon, he said, wants to maintain freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; and deter "provocative" actions from Iran.
And, he added, military escorts of civilian ships will take place if conditions demand it.
"You see it happening already: The Brits are trying to escort their ships, and we will escort our ships to the degree that the risks demand it," Esper said.
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He declined to narrow down what military assets might be tasked as escorts or what an escort might look like if employed.
"We maintain constant surveillance in the Gulf both by air and by sea. As ... I understand it, as you move through different parts of the strait and up into either ends of it, the threat changes, given proximity, locations of [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] capabilities. That's just one example of the assessments you have to make as you navigate the strait," Esper said. " ... To the degree that United States vessels need an escort, we'll be there; we'll be available to them."
The U.S. military has a history of escorting civilian vessels through waters off the coast of Iran at times of provocation and tension. In 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter authorized Navy escorts through the Strait of Hormuz for all U.S.-flagged ships after the IRGC briefly seized control of the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship Maersk Tigris and harassed another commercial vessel.
In 1987, amid Iranian tensions and hostility, the U.S. Navy drew up an elaborate -- and vastly resource-consuming -- plan to provide sea and air protection for any commercial assets transiting through the gulf.
Currently, the Navy's Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and Boxer Amphibious Ready Group are operating in the region.
Esper said he plans to visit U.S. Central Command next week to further discuss Operation Sentinel and topics including the prospect of deploying military escorts.
"To the degree that circumstances warrant, that we think that maybe a U.S. ship may be under some sort of threat, being stopped or being seized, we would want to make sure we have the capacity to make sure that doesn't happen," he said. "In some cases, that may be strictly an overhead capability; it may mean a U.S. naval warship is in proximity. I don't necessarily mean that every U.S.-flagged ship going through the strait has a destroyer right behind it."
Esper said he wants to avoid entering a "tit-for-tat" conflict with Iran similar to that between Iran and the United Kingdom. Earlier this month, the U.K. seized an Iranian tanker, and Iran responded by seizing a British-flagged one.
"We don't get into those situations where there's a provocation, where there's a seizure of a ship or something like that," he said. "We're trying to de-escalate and, at the same time, message to them that without precondition, any time, any place, we're willing to meet with them and enter into a negotiation."