Military officials are expressing alarm that a shrinking U.S. military presence in the Middle East has undermined their ability to respond to Iranian threats just as President Donald Trump's administration's imposition of oil sanctions increases the potential for confrontation.
Concern about the Pentagon's decision to move ships, combat aircraft and missile defense systems out of the region has intensified in the run-up to Monday's deadline for reimposing energy sanctions on Iran, the White House's latest move to pressure Iran and curtail its support for armed proxy groups.
Although officials don't believe Iran is capable of sustaining a prolonged large-scale attack on U.S. forces in the region, they are worried it could lash out by employing its robust arsenal of ballistic missiles or using mines to shut down waterways crucial to global commerce.
The U.S. footprint in the region has reached a low ebb as the Pentagon, under Trump's strategy for reorienting national security priorities, seeks to direct the military toward competition with China and Russia rather than the insurgent groups that have been the focus of the post-9/11 period.
The Pentagon is racing to match its global posture toward what Defense Secretary James Mattis calls "great power competition," even as the White House has elevated a separate goal of checking Iran's influence and activities across the Middle East.
It is the campaign to contain Iran -- including Trump's decision to withdraw from his predecessor's nuclear deal and announce an effort to drive Iranian forces out of Syria -- that some military officials believe has increased the likelihood of confrontation. Multiple officials said that U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, has requested additional resources.
The U.S. military has not had an aircraft carrier in the region since March. It has also removed a large share of its Patriot missile batteries along with certain combat aircraft such as the advanced F-22 Raptor, according to military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss force allocation.
Officials believe it would take several months to get ready for war with Iran, much longer than it would take Iran to take action that would damage global commerce.
Lt Col. Earl Brown, a Central Command spokesman, said the command had the forces it needed to defeat the Islamic State, assist Afghan forces to battle the Taliban and conduct other missions.
A primary concern for some officials is the military's ability to respond in the Strait of Hormuz, a maritime chokepoint which Iran has threatened to shut down if provoked.
While Naval officials said there are four destroyers in the region, one typically is tasked with addressing the threat from Houthi rebels in Yemen in the area around the Bab al-Mandeb, on the other side of the Arabian peninsula. Often another will be in port for maintenance.
Iran, meanwhile, has at least 1,000 fast boats -- the small, armed vessels that Tehran has regularly used to harass U.S. ships -- and the capability to lay thousands of mines in waters off its coast. Officials estimate that Iran could lay a thousand mines in less than a week. It would take a relatively small number of mines to close the strait or make it difficult to transit.
A Section on 11/04/2018
Print Headline: Officials worry U.S. military forces in Mideast insufficient against Iran