Military Aviation

US Sending Destroyer, F-35s, F-16s to Protect Merchant Ships in Middle East After ‘Alarming’ Actions by Iran, Pentagon Says

Alarming Actions by Iran

The Defense Department on Jul. 17, 2023 announced in a news release an increased presence in the US Central Command’s area of responsibility, including an additional Navy destroyer along with fighter jets.

“In response to a number of recent, alarming events in the Strait of Hormuz, the secretary of defense has ordered the deployment of the of the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner, F-35 fighters and F-16 fighters to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to defend U.S. interests and safeguard freedom of navigation in the region,” said Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh during a briefing.

Earlier this month, Singh said, the Iranian navy attempted to illegally seize two merchant vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.

The Navy’s USS Thomas Hudner is under orders from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to deploy to U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. The Thomas Hudner is an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer.

“One attempt included an Iranian navy ship firing upon the merchant vessel,” Singh said. “In light of this continued threat and in coordination with our partners and allies, the department is increasing our presence and ability to monitor the strait and surrounding waters.”

US Sending Destroyer, F-35s, F-16s to Protect Merchant Ships in Middle East

Singh did not have additional specifics on the number of fighters or their units. A US Central Command spokesperson did not have additional details on the aircraft, USNI News reports. F-16s are flown exclusively by the US Air Force while F-35s variants are flown by the Navy, Air Force and Marines.

The US dispatched F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters to supplement forces already in US Central Command: to deter Iran, the US has A-10s patrolling the skies in the area, in addition to P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is ordering an undisclosed number of F-16 aircraft, similar to the one photographed, to deploy to the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility.

A senior US defense official told Air & Space Forces Magazine that the F-35s could be used over the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz if the airspace became contested and could be used over Syria if Russia presented a more significant threat.

A-10s are most useful in uncontested airspace, which is why the Air Force wants to retire them by the end of the decade, figuring they are not suited to a high-end fight. Iran has fighter aircraft such as American-made F-4 Phantoms and surface-to-air missiles along its coast that can reach out over the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran previously downed a US RQ-4 drone in 2019. F-22 Raptors that were rushed to the region last month in response to Russian actions are leaving CENTCOM, according to US officials.

“If the maritime domain becomes contested, the F-35s would be able to operate and conduct that mission,” the senior U.S. defense official told Air & Space Forces Magazine.

F-35s well suited to respond alarming actions by Iran

While the senior U.S. defense official said they didn’t anticipate Tehran would seek to challenge the U.S. in the skies, the F-35s would be well suited to respond.

An undisclosed number of F-35 aircraft, similar to the one pictured, are being deployed to the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.

“They could suppress the enemy defenses if you got to that level,” the official said. “If F-4s start flying out to harass the A-10s, we could fly F-35s out there and the F-4 is not really going to be a particular issue.”

According to a news report from US Central Command, on Jun. 4, US forces already in Centcom’s area of responsibility participated in preventing two commercial tanker ships from being seized by the Iranian military in international waters near the coast of Oman.

One of those ships, the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker TRF Moss, was approached by an Iranian naval vessel, but that naval vessel departed after the arrival of the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul (CLICK HERE to read the report).

Later that same day, the Bahamian-flagged oil tanker Richmond Voyager was also approached by an Iranian naval vessel. That Iranian naval vessel got within one mile of the tanker and fired on it using small arms and crew-served weapons. As happened with the TRF Moss, the Iranian vessel departed when the USS McFaul arrived on the scene.

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About 20 merchant vessels attacked or seized since 2021

According to Centcom, Iran has attacked or seized about 20 merchant vessels since 2021.

“We call upon Iran to immediately cease these destabilizing actions that threaten the free flow of commerce through this strategic waterway, of which the world depends on for more than 1/5 of the world’s oil supply,” Singh said.

Since the end of the war in Afghanistan, the US has deemphasized the Middle East as a naval theater with more resources routed to the Pacific and Europe. Big deck amphibious warship USS Essex (LHD-2) was the last US capital ship to operate in US CENTCOM when it departed in early 2022. The last carrier in the region was Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), which departed the Middle East in 2021 after the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Photo credit: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Malachi Lakey, Osakabe Yasuo, Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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