Pentagon Weighs Extending USS Bataan and Marine Expeditionary Unit Deployment in Middle East Amid Turmoil

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U.S. Marines board a CH-53E Super Stallion aboard the USS Bataan
U.S. Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), board a CH-53E Super Stallion on the USS Bataan during an amphibious assault as part of the 26th MEU(SOC) Exercise “Odyssey Encore,” Volos, Greece, Jan. 8, 2024. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Nayelly Nieves-Nieves)

The Pentagon is considering extending a deployment for Marines and sailors who have been operating in the Middle East and Mediterranean since the summer, according to a defense official, a potentially lengthy extension amid questions over the readiness of Navy ships that could relieve them.

The Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG, which includes roughly 2,000 Marines, has been patrolling the waters in and around the Middle East after deploying in July, and at one point this fall, it was headed to the waters off Israel as a crisis response following the start of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Now, as the Pentagon looks to keep a deterrent force in the region as it seemingly plummets into further turmoil each day, service members with the Bataan may be deployed for almost a year in total. Along with the USS Bataan, the USS Carter Hall and USS Mesa Verde are also part of the amphibious ready group.

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    "Deterrence is back on the table and, if you thought we forgot about the Middle East, you're wrong," one defense official told Military.com. The Bataan could be deployed until May or June -- a total of roughly 11 months, according to the defense official. CBS reported Thursday that the Bataan was deployed "indefinitely."

    For the Pentagon, the amphibious groups represent a mobile, first-response force for the U.S. around the world. While carrier strike groups, such as the Eisenhower, conduct retaliatory and preemptive strikes against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, the Marines and sailors aboard the Bataan have been trawling the waters of the Red Sea, Strait of Hormuz and Mediterranean as a warning to disruptive actors in the area while being ready to help in an emergency.

    Last month, USNI News also reported that the Marines aboard the Bataan have permission to fly the currently grounded MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft in case of emergencies despite a force-wide grounding. The Marines aboard the ship -- the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- told reporters in April that the aircraft would be essential in the case of a mass evacuation and showcased their ability to evacuate an embassy.

    Amid the consideration for extending the Bataan, the Israel-Hamas War has lit a powder keg in the Middle East, spurring fears that the U.S. could be headed for another open-ended conflict in the region. Since October, service members in Syria and Iraq have been attacked more than 150 times; Houthis have attacked commercial ships in the area with drones despite repeated warning and retaliatory strikes; and in a recent escalation, Iran and Pakistan have gone tit-for-tat on attacks.

    The U.S. and U.K. militaries launched retaliatory strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen on Jan. 11 after the Iran-backed militants targeted international shipping in the Red Sea. U.S. strikes have continued since then as the Houthis launched more attacks on merchant ships. President Joe Biden said last week that the U.S. military strikes would continue.

    Now, the Pentagon is considering retaining Marines and sailors in the region for an extended period of time in an attempt to keep violence at bay. Whether it will work remains to be seen as the escalations continue to bring unrest, and a deployment end date for the Bataan and its Marines is in question due to the state of another Navy amphibious ready group that could relieve them.

    The Boxer ARG was scheduled to deploy in November and is likely to replace the Bataan, according to the defense official, who was granted anonymity to discuss operations.

    However, a Navy official who spoke to Military.com on Friday said that the "the Navy has several options to fulfill the missions in the region, and while we can't discuss the specific plans for Bataan, we're not aware that Boxer was ever a part of that planning."

    The Navy does not dispute that the Boxer -- the lead ship in the next amphibious ready group to deploy -- is not ready.

    Military.com is aware that the ship was conducting the "composite training unit exercise" -- one of the final, major exercises that certifies a ship for deployment -- as late as last week.

    A Navy official told Military.com Monday that the ship has since returned to port but needs "additional advanced training" before it is fully ready to deploy.

    An earlier statement from the Navy's Third Fleet, provided to Military.com last week, said that the sea service wouldn't "speculate on any future operations or movements for operational security reasons" and noted that "the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit team maintains a constant level of readiness to respond to emergent situations."

    Politico first reported the potential extension on the Bataan and 26th MEU in the face of Navy maintenance issues. When asked about the deployment being extended, a U.S. European Command spokesperson told Military.com on Saturday that, "due to operational security considerations, we will not discuss future operations."

    "However, while deployed to the region, our forces work closely with allies and partners throughout the region to defend our shared interests," they said.

    The 26th MEU is a contingent of "special operations-capable" Marines who have the ability to conduct non-combatant evacuations, embassy reinforcement and port seizures, among other missions.

    The MEU originally deployed in July to the Middle East to thwart Iranian aggression against commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. In October, the MEU cut an exercise in Kuwait short to respond to the Israel-Hamas War that began that month.

    The last publicly disclosed operation the unit conducted was Odyssey Encore, an exercise in Greece that ended Wednesday. It arrived in Souda Bay, Greece, over the weekend for a port visit to conduct maintenance before the "next phase in our deployment," the 26th MEU commander, Col. Dennis "Dolf" Sampson, said in a press release.

    "We're able to operate really autonomously in international waters and airspace. And so it gives us a lot of freedom of operations," Marine Lt. Col. Jeremy Hawkins, a senior planner on the Bataan, told The Associated Press on Friday. "We're floating on a piece of America, wherever we're at."

    Meanwhile, the nearly 30-year-old Boxer has had a tough past several years. In the summer of 2023, Military.com reported that, despite completing a two-year, $200 million overhaul that was supposed to ready the ship for the service's newest fighter jet, it was struggling to actually set sail.

    Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, the spokesman for the Navy's surface fleet, told Military.com at the time that the Boxer was supposed to go to sea on July 21 -- more than a year since the ship was last seen underway -- but couldn't "because of ongoing maintenance issues."

    About a month later, the ship finally left the docks, but was spotted belching black smoke just outside of San Diego Harbor. An online account that runs a web camera focused on the harbor captured the ship, saying it "just had an engineering casualty."

    When Military.com asked about the incident, Abrahamson claimed the incident was connected to system tests.

    "The boilers burn fuel which can temporarily produce black smoke, including when engineering systems are being tested during a sea trial period," Abrahamson said in August.

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