In response to continued threats from Iran and a request from Riyadh, the Pentagon announced Friday the deployment of additional U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia. Washington is seeking to strengthen U.S. combat power in the Middle East as a means to deter additional Iranian aggression and avoid a wider conflict.
The deployment represents the latest U.S. response to the September 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Khurais oil field and Abqaiq oil-processing facility. The attack featured a swarm of cruise missiles and low-flying drones. Abqaiq represents the world’s largest such facility, and the attack temporarily knocked-out nearly 6 percent of global crude oil production.
Shortly after the September 14 attacks, the Department of Defense deployed an additional Patriot missile defense battery, four Sentinel radars, and 200 support personnel to Saudi Arabia. Friday’s announcement adds two additional fighter squadrons, two more Patriot batteries, one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and one air expeditionary wing.
The September 14 attack is part of what Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called Iran’s “larger campaign to destabilize the Middle East and impose costs on the international economy.” During a press conference, Esper hinted that U.S. partners and allies continue to express concerns to the administration regarding additional Iranian aggression – concerns Esper suggested were confirmed by U.S. intelligence. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said the deployment was necessary to “reestablish deterrence with respect to Iran.”
The need to deter Iran is clear. Since May, Tehran’s actions have escalated from surreptitious attacks on foreign vessels, to the downing of a U.S. drone in international airspace, to a major cross-border attack on Saudi Arabia that many would consider a clear act of war. Unfortunately, President Trump’s short-sighted decision to greenlight a Turkish military intervention into northeast Syria and withdraw U.S. troops from the area will only reinforce Tehran’s suspicions that Washington’s commitment to the region’s security is hesitant and brittle.
In response to Iran’s actions, the U.S. has deployed 14,000 additional troops to the region since May. In addition to the most recent deployments, as Esper noted, this includes airborne early warning aircraft squadrons, maritime patrol aircraft squadrons, B-52 bombers, an amphibious transport dock, unmanned aircraft, engineering personnel, and the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group (CSG).
In a clear message to Iran, the Lincoln CSG has been operating since May in the general vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz – a vital international energy chokepoint that Tehran periodically threatens to close. However, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), which anchors the CSG, may soon need to end its deployment in the region. Regrettably, its likely replacement, the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), may be delayed until November because of electrical repairs. This gap likely leaves the Department of Defense with insufficient strike aircraft capacity in the region, perhaps explaining Friday’s decision to deploy two additional fighter squadrons.
On Friday, Esper urged “other like-minded countries, especially our allies in Europe, to follow the United States’ lead and join us with their own defensive assets to ensure stability in the region.” This hardly seems like an unreasonable request given Europe’s dependence on energy exports from the Middle East.
Thus far, the Trump administration has exhibited notable restraint in responding to Tehran’s aggression. General Milley warned on Friday that Tehran would be unwise to confuse American restraint with American weakness. Unfortunately, President Trump’s Syria decision may send the message that the U.S. would rather withdraw than confront aggression.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mikhael Smits is a research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman and @mikhaelsmits. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.