Almost 16 months ago, then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis initiated a course correction for the Pentagon. After 17 years of war in the Middle East, great power competition with Russia and China, not terrorism, would be the priority.
But this week, the White House ordered an aircraft carrier strike group operating in the Mediterranean Sea and bomber task force to move to the U.S. Central Command region, in a striking show of force designed to counter what acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called“a credible threat” from Iran to attack U.S. forces. Then on Friday, the United States sent additional hardware into the region, including the USS Arlington amphibious ship, which transports U.S. Marines and their equipment, and a Patriot missile battery, according to the Pentagon.
The U.S. Defense Department is tracking threats to U.S. troops in the region from Iran and Iranian proxy forces both on land and by sea, a U.S. defense official told reporters Friday. In the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon has seen “anomalous naval activity” by Iranian regime vessels, such as dhows, small sailing vessels, being loaded with potential military hardware, including missiles.
The unusual movement of U.S. military forces, which was initially announced by Iran hawk John Bolton, the national security advisor, reflects the challenge the Pentagon faces in shifting focus to preparing for the next war while it is still mired in the current fight.
“Despite all of the administration’s attempts to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, the latest move illustrates how difficult it is for the U.S. to extricate itself from the region and free up resources to focus on Russia and China,” said Becca Wasser, a policy analyst at the Rand Corp.
The continued focus on Iran despite the department’s stated pivot to Russia and China has frustrated many observers and former officials. Wasser pointed out that the Defense Department ranks Iran as a fourth-tier threat in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon’s latest guiding document.
“It’s this alternative universe where Iran is an equivalent threat [to Russia and China],” said one former defense official. “They are messing around in the Middle East and all over the place, but hammer, nail? It’s more like hammer, apple.”
The former official expressed hope that once Shanahan is confirmed as permanent secretary of defense, the balance will shift back to great power competition.
At the Pentagon this week, details about the deployment trickled out in fits and starts. Shanahan, who on his second day on the job back in January said China was his top priority, finally issued a statement on the move almost a full day after the White House first announced it.
“We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation,” Shanahan said. “We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on U.S. forces or our interests.”
The decision originated with Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the newly minted commander of U.S. Central Command, but was left to the White House to announce, according to a defense official. McKenzie requested additional forces in the region following “recent and clear indications that Iranian and Iranian proxy forces were making preparations to possibly attack U.S. forces,” according to Centcom spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban.
The Pentagon received indications of “very, very credible intelligence” on the afternoon of May 3, Shanahan told lawmakers during a hearing on Wednesday. However, the administration has yet to provide details about that intelligence or where it originated.
McKenzie had been something of a wild card in the latest escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran. He took the reins of the world’s most volatile region from Gen. Joseph Votel in March, after serving as director of the joint staff at the Pentagon under Mattis since 2017.
But McKenzie made his views clear on Wednesday during a speech in Washington, revealing a hard line on Tehran. He dedicated nearly half of a 30-minute speech to sounding the alarm on Iran on Iran’s “malign” activity and ambition across the globe, noting that Tehran is responsible for the deaths of more than 600 U.S. service members in Iraq and issuing an explicit warning to the regime.
“While we do not seek war, Iran should not confuse our deliberate approach with an unwillingness to act,” McKenzie said of the deployment.
Some expressed skepticism that Bolton’s statement was much more than a symbolic gesture, pointing out that the USS Abraham Lincoln was already embarked on a scheduled deployment to the Mediterranean and had planned to eventually head to Centcom.
But the Pentagon expedited the carrier’s arrival, skipping a planned port visit to Split, Croatia, and ending an unusual “carrier gap,” when the United States had no carrier presence at all in the Persian Gulf.
The deployment of a small bomber task force, too, is a significant move. Although bombers typically rotate seamlessly in and out of the region, the B-1 squadron most recently stationed at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, left in March and has not yet been replaced—an unusual shift that many attributed to the defeat of the Islamic State’s physical territory.
A second defense official confirmed that the deployment, which will consist of four aircraft from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, was not previously planned.
Beyond Iran, Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the task force deployment is a signal to Russia and China about the offensive capability of America’s bomber force. However, he said, “this is clearly overreach and chest thumping resulting from the administration’s obsession with Iran.”
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Elbridge Colby, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development in 2017 and 2018, stressed that preparing for a war with Russia or China does not mean ignoring other threats to America’s interests. It just means the United States must right-size its approach to those threats.
“The United States needs to check Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony but not overthrow the Islamic Republic,” Colby wrote. “The United States does not need F-22s to attack terrorist havens nor whole brigade combat teams to advise Middle Eastern militaries; cheaper drones and tailored advise-and-assist units will do.”
By that logic, sending an entire carrier strike group and bomber task force to respond to a yet unnamed threat from Iran—especially when U.S. forces in the region often face provocation from the regime and proxy forces—might be overkill.
McKenzie stressed that the deployment is an example of what the military calls “dynamic force employment,” meaning a force that is agile enough to respond rapidly to any contingency around the world.
This signals to our allies and adversaries that the United States can “project power where we need it.”
But ultimately, Bolton’s unexpected announcement reflects a setback for the pivot to great power competition, Wasser said.
“It ultimately undermines DOD’s main priority in the NDS—Russia and China—in the grander scheme, as resources and attentions are bogged down in the Middle East,” she said.