Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered around 2,000 troops to be on heightened alert to potentially deploy in response to the continuing conflict in Israel, a Pentagon statement released Tuesday morning announced.
Austin "placed approximately 2,000 personnel and a range of units on a heightened state of readiness through a prepare-to-deploy order," Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said in the emailed statement.
The order is just the latest in a series of deployments and posture adjustments, including the movement of two carrier strike groups and a Marine expeditionary unit to the region, that have been announced by the Pentagon in recent days to bolster support of Israel as it wages war against Hamas, a Palestinian group that rules the Gaza Strip and launched a terrorist attack earlier this month.
The Pentagon did not say which specific units had received the order.
The prepare-to-deploy order could again raise the U.S. presence in the region, which has already grown to a level not seen since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. The U.S. has said repeatedly that the aim of the buildup is to deter other groups and nations in the region, such as Hezbollah and Iran, from entering the war.
As part of the announcement Tuesday, Austin also extended the deployment of the USS Gerald R. Ford -- the Navy's newest and most advanced aircraft carrier -- and the five other ships that make up its strike group after they were sent to the region on Oct. 8. The ships were nearing the end of their six-month deployment.
On Monday, a defense official also confirmed that the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, along with two of the Navy ships that it is embarked on, are en route "to the waters off of Israel." Two days prior, on Saturday, Austin also announced that the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with its own cruiser and two destroyers, will eventually join the Ford off the Israeli coast.
To date, however, defense and White House officials have been clear in saying that the U.S. military assets off the coast of Israel or in the nearby area are not conducting offensive operations against Hamas or the Gaza Strip.
The only U.S. military unit that appeared to be involved in the conflict on Tuesday was a small cell of special operations troops that was attached to the embassy in Israel far before the conflict began. Those troops were said to be providing advice and guidance on hostage recovery efforts.
When asked about the legal authority to fight Hamas, Singh told reporters Monday that it was a question for President Joe Biden and that the military's goal was "to strictly be in a position to deter." Officials have cited groups such as Hezbollah or Iran as their chief concerns.
Hamas launched a concerted attack across the Gaza border into Israel on Oct. 7, firing rockets and sending gunmen to slaughter civilians at a music festival and in nearby communities. The attack killed at least 1,200, and the group also took hostages that included Americans.
Israel declared war a day after the attack, launched retaliatory strikes and appeared to be gearing up for a ground offensive in Gaza.
A senior defense official told reporters Oct. 9 that the Ford strike group and her five accompanying ships not only have significant firepower but also offer military leaders the ability to conduct a "full spectrum of missions."
In addition to sending planes and ships, senior U.S. military leaders including Austin visited Israel over the past week.
Late Monday evening, U.S. Central Command said in a statement that its commander, Gen. Erik Kurilla, arrived in Tel Aviv "to conduct high-level meetings with Israel's military leadership ... to gain a clear understanding of Israel's defense requirements, outline U.S. support efforts to avoid expansion of the conflict, and reiterate the Department of Defense's ironclad support for Israel."
In the statement, Kurilla stressed that he is "particularly focused on avoiding other parties expanding the conflict."
President Joe Biden announced that he will also visit the country on Wednesday.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.