The Pentagon is sending a fresh wave of troops to Saudi Arabia to help defend the kingdom against Iran, despite President Donald Trump’s repeated pledges to end the U.S. military's commitments in the Middle East.
“I have ordered the deployment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of two additional fighter squadrons and supporting personnel,” including two batteries of soldiers manning Patriot air-defense missiles and another Army unit manning a larger air-defense missile system, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon today.
The latest deployment, which includes two squadrons of fighter jets and three air-defense units, will bring to 3,000 the number of troops the U.S. has sent to Saudi Arabia since Iran attacked the kingdom’s oil infrastructure last month. “The evidence recovered so far proves that Iran is responsible for these attacks,” Esper said, noting that Germany, France and the United Kingdom have reached the same conclusion.
Trump has repeatedly pledged to pull U.S. forces back from overseas entanglements. “We want to bring our soldiers back home. These are endless wars,” he said Monday, in an apparent reference to the continuing U.S. troop commitments in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere. And yesterday, Trump falsely claimed that U.S. forces have been fully removed from Syria. Roughly 1,000 troops are deployed there.
Along with other deployments over the spring and summer “in response to Iranian provocations,” the new wave of units will push the total number of U.S. troops the Pentagon has added to the Middle East since May to 14,000, Esper noted.
Those earlier deployments included Air Force bombers, early-warning radar planes, drones, construction engineers to build up airbases, and warships. Some of the units deployed to existing U.S. bases in the region, while others, starting in July, reestablished an operational U.S. military presence at an airbase in Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon had pulled out of that airbase, leaving only an advisory presence in the kingdom, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
An Air Force headquarters unit will also head to Saudi Arabia in the latest wave, the Pentagon noted in a statement. U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, requested the new deployments.
Esper has also delegated authority to move forces within the region to Gen. Frank McKenzie, who heads Central Command, added Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.
The purpose of the deployment is to “send the message to the Iranians, do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American forces,” Milley said.
Esper, meanwhile, described the move as an example of “dynamic force employment,” a term the Pentagon has recently introduced for short-notice deployments around the world, either in response to crises or to flex the military’s muscles in training.
But the timing of the new orders suggests they are aimed at filling an airpower gap as the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group prepares to depart the region. Esper’s predecessor ordered Lincoln and its accompanying aircraft and warships to Middle Eastern waters in May, reversing a Pentagon initiative meant to free up carriers from their longstanding Middle East mission.
Esper wouldn’t comment on the aircraft carrier issue today, saying he wouldn’t “speak about operational deployments particularly with regard to assets like carriers.” But Esper has not signed an order authorizing an extension of the Lincoln’s deployment, Capt. Brook DeWalt, a Pentagon spokesperson, said.
The deployment of Lincoln's replacement, USS Harry S. Truman, has been delayed until next month due to problems with the ship's electrical system, USNI News reported.