U.S. Military Is Sending Fighter Jets, Recon Aircraft, Engineers, and More To The Middle East (Updated)

The Pentagon has announced it will deploy approximately 1,500 personnel to the Middle East, including fighter jets, reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, a battalion of Patriot surface-to-air missile systems, and combat engineers. However, U.S. military officials have already clarified that some 600 of these personnel are already in the region and will simply be extending their tours. The deployments are in response to still largely nebulous claims from the U.S. government that intelligence showed Iran and its proxies were preparing to launch attacks on American interests in the Middle East.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan revealed basic details about the new force posture on May 24, 2019, though he did not say specifically where the additional personnel would be arriving. The day before, he had dismissed various news reports that had said the United States was considering sending between 5,000 and 10,000 additional troops to the region. It should be noted that tthe U.S. military already has tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East.

Since National Security Advisor John Bolton first announced the Iranian threat on May 6, 2019, the U.S. military has sent B-52H bombers, F-15C Eagle fighter jets, and an additional battery of Patriots to the region, as well as expedited the deployment of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and her associated carrier strike group to the area. The U.S. Navy also sent the amphibious ship USS Arlington to swap places with another already sailing in and around the Persian Gulf.

“I approved the [U.S. Central Command] combatant commander’s request for the deployment of additional resources and capabilities to the Middle East to improve our force protection and safeguard U.S. forces given the ongoing threat posed by Iranian forces, including the IRGC [Islamic Revolution Guard Corps] and its proxies,” Shanahan said in a statement. “The additional deployment to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility is a prudent defensive measure and intended to reduce the possibility of future hostilities.”

But, as noted, the extension of the existing deployment of a U.S. Army Patriot air defense system battalion to the region reflects 40 percent of this total “deployment.” It is not clear whether or not any of the other actual additive deployments were previously scheduled and could coincide with the withdrawal of other personnel, as turned out to be the case with the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and the USS Arlington

Shanahan did not elaborate on what types of fighter jets or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft the United States would be sending, either. The U.S. military routinely rotates these types of aircraft, including unmanned ISR platforms, through the region. Earlier this year, for instance, the U.S. Air Force withdrew its F-22 Raptors from Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), bringing regular deployments of those stealth jets to the Middle East to an end for the first time in years. The service has since deployed F-15Cs and F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to the region in their place.

The U.S. government’s descriptions of the exact nature of the threats from Iran to U.S. interests in the region, or those of its allies, continue to be vague and there can only be growing questions about how imminent those risks might actually be as time goes on. A lone rocket did land inside Baghdad’s Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy compound on May 19, 2019, and Iraqi authorities indicated one of the country’s Iranian back Shi’ite militias might have been responsible. However, no group has claimed to be have been behind that attack, which caused minimal damage and no casualties.

In addition, the United States and others have blamed Iran or its proxies, possibly Yemen’s Houthi rebels, for launching sabotage attacks on four oil tankers, including the Norwegian-flagged M/V Andrea Victory, off the coast of the UAE on May 13, 2019. The evidence behind these conclusions remains limited and the Yemeni group has not taken responsibility for that attack, though they have publicly stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia in the past week using ballistic missiles and drones.

The timing of the Pentagon’s new deployment announcement itself is curious, given that Shanahan himself seemed to downplay the immediacy of any potential threats just days ago. “I think our steps were very prudent and we’ve put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans and that’s what’s extremely important,” he told reporters after a closed-door meeting on the issue with lawmakers on May 21, 2019.

“I’d say we’re in a period where the threat remains high and our job is to make sure that there is no miscalculation by the Iranians,” he continued, without offering any new information about the reported threats. “I just hope Iran is listening. We’re in the region to address many things, but it’s not to go to war with Iran.”

For their part, the Iranians also insist they are not looking for a war with the United States, but will also defend themselves if necessary, raising concerns about the potential risk that either side could misinterpret additional military moves into or within the region as potential threats. It remains to be seen how the regime in Tehran will respond to the new American force posture. 

On May 24, 2019, two Democrat Senators, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the former of whom is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that Trump Administration was also now looking to use the supposed threats from Iran to invoke an emergency clause in the Arms Export Control Act to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries without Congressional approval. 

A number of deals to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been on hold in the Senate over concerns about how the countries are prosecuting their controversial conflict against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as over Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There were also reports that the Trump Administration could seek to use this same authority to speed up arms sales to Jordan and Thailand, as well, but it is unclear what the exact justification for using the emergency provisions of the AECA would actually be and whether these latter two cases would have any relations to the current situation regarding Iran.

We will update this story if and when new information becomes available.

UPDATE: 3:30pm EST—

The Wall Street Journal has now reported that amid the Pentagon’s announcement and the Trump Administration’s desire to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia and others, that the U.S. government is also engaged in back-channel communications with Iranian contacts about potential diplomatic options to defuse the latest tensions. The United States and Iran do not have formal diplomatic relations.

UPDATE: 3:55pm EST—

Military.com has reported, citing an unnamed U.S. government official, that the reason why details about the announced deployment are so limited is that it is still in the planning stages, despite the Pentagon’s announcement. That same individual said the bulk of the personnel would come from the U.S. Army, but it is unclear whether or not they were referring to the inclusion of 600 soldiers who are already in the region in the original total force package.

UPDATE: 4:05pm EST—

There is now a publicly available copy of the Trump Administration’s justification for citing the emergency provisions in the AECA to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, though there is no mention of Thailand as previously reported. As expected, it cites Iranian threats and their support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It also cites the recent “threat reporting” about supposed potential attacks against American forces in the region.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.