The United States is preparing to pull some of its forces and defenses -- mostly air defense systems -- from the Middle East this summer as it adjusts to the war ending in Afghanistan and shifts its focus to challenges from major adversary nations.
In a statement Monday, Navy Cmdr. Jessica McNulty, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered U.S. Central Command head Gen. Kenneth McKenzie to remove those forces from the region. Some of the systems will return to the U.S. for "much-needed" maintenance and repair, she said, while others will be redeployed to other regions.
In a report Friday, The Wall Street Journal said that the Pentagon will withdraw some fighter squadrons and about eight Patriot batteries from Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other nations, as well as a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system from Saudi Arabia.
McNulty would not confirm specific details of the withdrawal plans, including locations or timelines for moving them.
"This decision was made in close coordination with host nations and with a clear eye on preserving our ability to meet our security commitments," she said. "It's about maintaining some of our high-demand, low-density assets so they are ready for future requirements in the event of a contingency."
The U.S. military is in the midst of a major shift in its focus, after two decades fighting terrorist and other violent extremist groups in the Middle East. The Pentagon's National Defense Strategy now prioritizes preparing for a so-called "great power competition," the potential threat from peer or near-peer nations with formidable militaries such as Russia, China or North Korea.
As part of that readjustment, the military is reconsidering what forces it needs stationed around the world -- and what may not be as necessary anymore.
McNulty said that the military's redeployment will not leave it vulnerable in the Middle East.
"We maintain a robust force posture in the region appropriate to the threat and are comfortable that these changes do not negatively impact our national security interests," she said. "We also retain the flexibility to rapidly flow forces back into the Middle East as conditions warrant."
The withdrawal is not a sign of flagging U.S. commitment to the region, she added. The U.S. still has "tens of thousands" of troops in the region, including advanced air and maritime assets, and maintains partnerships with nations there including intelligence sharing, security assistance and arms sales, she said.
"Our enduring commitment in the region is very clear from the incredible range of partnership activities and close defense consultations we conduct, to our significant remaining ground, air and naval footprint," McNulty continued. "We have been a close partner for many of these countries for decades, and there is no other country that provides the support and commitment to Middle East security and stability that the United States does. ... The presence of certain assets and forces is only one factor in our relationship."