Shrink­ing U.S. foot­print in Mid­dle East alarms mil­i­tary of­fi­cials

The Washington Post Sunday - - ELECTION 2018 - BY MISSY RYAN missy.ryan@wash­post.com

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 the Trump 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 think Iran is ca­pa­ble of sus­tain­ing a pro­longed large-scale at­tack on U.S. forces in the re­gion, they are wor­ried that 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 shrunk as the Pen­tagon, un­der Pres­i­dent 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 Jim 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 think 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.

That shift has oc­curred as Iran had made pub­lic threats to close the Strait of Hor­muz. Of­fi­cials think it would re­quire sev­eral months to get ready for war with Iran, much longer than it would take Iran to dam­age global com­merce.

Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a Cent­com 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. “While we are not go­ing to dis­cuss the move­ment of spe­cific forces into and out of the re­gion, the U.S. has re­peat­edly demon­strated the abil­ity to rapidly de­ploy and mass forces when­ever and wher­ever they are needed in a time of cri­sis,” he said.

A pri­mary con­cern for some of­fi­cials is the mil­i­tary’s abil­ity to re­spond in the Strait of Hor­muz, the mar­itime choke point that Iran has threat­ened to shut down if pro­voked.

“Now you’re squeez­ing them eco­nom­i­cally and diplo­mat­i­cally, and it’s un­cer­tain what Iran’s ul­ti­mate re­ac­tion will be,” one of­fi­cial said.

Since the USS Theodore Roosevelt headed to the Pa­cific in the spring, there has been no U.S. car­rier group in the Mid­dle East, the long­est pe­riod in years in which there has not been at least one in the re­gion. Of­fi­cials point out that it’s not just the de­ter­rent power of the car­rier but the other ships, air­craft and as­sets it brings with it.

Al­though Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, the Cent­com com­man­der, de­clined to dis­cuss short­falls in the re­gion, he said he sup­ported the re­align­ment to­ward China and Rus­sia. Speak­ing dur­ing a visit last week to the USS Es­sex, an am­phibi­ous as­sault ship in the Per­sian Gulf, he said: “Would I love to have a car­rier? Ab­so­lutely. No doubt about it. But I un­der­stand why we don’t, and I’m very grate­ful for ves­sels like the Es­sex right now.”

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 po­si­tion 1,000 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.

Al­though its small fleet of Rus­sian-made Kilo-class sub­marines, in ad­di­tion to Chi­nese mini-subs, does not ap­proach the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the U.S. un­der­sea ca­pa­bil­ity, of­fi­cials said, the ves­sels could im­pede com­merce if sta­tioned in the Strait of Hor­muz.

Vice Adm. Scott Stear­ney, who heads U.S. naval forces in the Mid­dle East, said the evolv­ing U.S. naval pos­ture re­flected the Pen­tagon’s new, more fluid and un­pre­dictable way of de­ploy­ing forces.

“There’s no fixed po­si­tions any­where on the globe where we an­chor any­thing,” he told re­porters last month. He noted that the last car­rier de­ploy­ment was at a mo­ment of height­ened ac­tiv­ity in the cam­paign against the Is­lamic State. “That was a dif­fer­ent time, that was a dif­fer­ent con­text, dif­fer­ent con­di­tions,” he said.

At the Pen­tagon, se­nior of­fi­cials in­clud­ing Mat­tis and Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have iden­ti­fied Iran and North Korea as im­por­tant chal­lenges but ones that do not rise to the level of China’s rapid ad­vance in mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy and Rus­sia’s moves to as­sert it­self glob­ally.

Col. Pa­trick Ry­der, a Joint Chiefs spokesman, said the mil­i­tary’s al­liances and its abil­ity to “surge forces” into the re­gion would al­low it to de­ter and re­spond to Iran.

But con­cern con­tin­ues to grow as well about Iran’s mis­sile ca­pa­bil­ity. While U.S. of­fi­cials have raised ques­tions about Iran’s abil­ity to strike in­tended tar­gets, a recent bal­lis­tic mis­sile at­tack on mil­i­tants in Syria, which was launched from Iran and came within about three miles of Amer­i­can troops, demon­strated its im­proved aim.

Af­ter the strike, pro-Ira­nian forces said the at­tack sent a mes­sage to ad­ver­saries in the re­gion about Iran’s mis­sile might. The dis­tance flown by those mis­siles — more than 300 miles — demon­strated that U.S. bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emi­rates are within reach.

Nei­ther do of­fi­cials feel con­fi­dent in their abil­ity to re­pel Iran’s bal­lis­tic mis­siles, es­ti­mated at about 2,000. This year, the Pen­tagon re­moved four Pa­triot mis­sile bat­ter­ies from the re­gion. It takes sev­eral air de­fense pro­jec­tiles to shoot down one in­com­ing mis­sile.

To counter the mine threat, the United States has minesweep­ers and spe­cial­ized he­li­copters based in Bahrain, but their abil­ity to se­cure mined wa­ter­ways could be slowed by Ira­nian mis­siles and boats.

Mara Kar­lin, a former se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cial who is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Johns Hop­kins School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, said Trump’s de­ci­sion to pull out of the nu­clear deal had in­creased the risk of a clash. “If you’re go­ing to blow up the JCPOA, the prospects for con­flict are higher, pe­riod,” she said, us­ing short­hand for the agree­ment.

But Kar­lin said it was time to make ad­just­ments to the heavy pres­ence the Pen­tagon main­tained in the re­gion dur­ing the height of coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions, given the cost to the abil­ity to con­front en­hanced com­pe­ti­tion from Beijing and Moscow.

“It’s a dif­fi­cult ad­just­ment and it does re­quire some re­ally hard dis­cus­sions,” she said.

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