Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, is accelerating a military buildup around the Persian Gulf, with new provisions added to parry possible Iranian military moves and to strike at targets inside Iran if necessary. This buildup comes just as a suicide bomb attack in Bulgaria on July 18 killed five Israeli tourists. In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it." Whether this bombing will result in Israeli military action against Iran remains to be seen. What is clear is that Mattis wants his forces in the region ready for that event.
Military planners at the Pentagon seem to be granting Mattis most, but not all, of his requests for reinforcements. Giving the general what he wants right now is not cost-free, however, and comes with its own set of risks. Now that the Pentagon has agreed to step up its commitment of air and naval power to deter Iran, the question becomes whether planners will be able to sustain such a commitment to an open-ended problem while the Pacific is making its own growing demands for U.S. air and naval assets. If not, the Pentagon will have to come up with alternate ways of sustaining Mattis's requirements while meeting growing demands for ships and aircraft in Asia. If the tensions in the Gulf continue to mount, the planned "pivot" to the Pacific may have to be indefinitely postponed.
The U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf took on a new dimension in late April when the U.S. Air Force revealed the arrival of an undisclosed number of F-22 stealth fighters at the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. On June 23, four U.S. Navy minesweeping ships arrived in the Persian Gulf, doubling the Navy's minesweeping force there. To support the beefed-up minesweeping squadron, and to support maritime special operations missions, the Navy has positioned USS Ponce in the Gulf, an amphibious assault ship now reconfigured as an "afloat forward staging base." In September, the Navy and about 20 other countries will conduct an 11-day minesweeping exercise near the Gulf, a display no doubt aimed at deterring the military decision-makers in Tehran from any thought of trying to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Missile defense is also receiving stepped-up attention. Qatar has agreed to host a long-range X-band missile defense radar site, adding to similar sites the United States already operates in Israel and Turkey. The radar in Qatar will peer deep into Iran and will give the U.S. missile defense command network an earlier alert of possible Iranian missile launches. The missile defense command system will share the data received from the Qatar radar with missile interceptors based on Navy ships and with land-based interceptor batteries around the region.
Finally, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta personally approved Mattis's request for an early deployment of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group. The Stennis group returned to Bremerton, Washington in March from a long Middle East deployment. Panetta's order will send the group back in late summer and will cut four months off the time the crews expected to be back home. The Stennis was supposed to sail this winter for service in the Pacific Command region. Instead, it will replace USS Enterprise (which is heading for retirement) on station in the Arabian Sea and will provide Mattis with the uninterrupted presence of two aircraft carriers in his region.
The rapid turnaround of the Stennis group shows the Navy's ability to respond to urgent requests. However, neither the Navy's ships nor its crews can maintain this operational tempo as a routine practice. The Stennis and her escort vessels will not receive all of the between-deployment maintenance they require and sending the crews back out on another long deployment after only five months back will be demoralizing.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said that the Stennis's accelerated deployment is not aimed at any specific threat nor is it a direct response to tensions with Iran. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have reached an undeclared impasse, raising the likelihood that Israel will see the need for a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear complex -- a long-standing concern that the Bulgaria attack may aggravate. If war breaks out over Iran sometime during the remainder of 2012, Mattis wants Iran's leaders to know that he has his own forces in position to both parry possible retaliation and to retaliate inside Iran if necessary.