The commander of U.S. Central Command told reporters at the Pentagon Friday that the U.S. would retain two aircraft carriers in the Middle East and is in the process of moving Patriot missile defense batteries into Iraq as Iran tensions mount.
The move by CENTCOM comes following a deadly rocket attack on an Iraqi base that killed two U.S. service members and a U.K. armed forces member. The U.S. responded to that attack Thursday launching airstrikes against five weapons storage depots belonging to an Iran-backed militia known as Kataib Hezbollah.
Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the comander of CENTCOM, told reporters Friday that the carrier operations in the Middle East would be the “first period of extended dual carrier operations” in the region since 2012.
Currently the Nimitz-class Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman are operating in the the CENTCOM area of operations.
“I would caution Iran and its proxies from attempting a response that would endanger U.S. and coalition forces,” McKenzie said. “We have the flexibility, the capability, and the will to respond to any threat.”
The bolstered carrier support provides added flexibility for the U.S. military across CENTCOM, McKenzie said. He explained to reporters Friday that the carrier is a “floating piece of American sovereignty” that allows commanders to use American air power without stringent controls from host nation forces.
McKenzie also said the carrier “provides enormous capacity” that Iran monitors “very closely.”
The CENTCOM commander explained to reporters that the U.S. is still in the early stages of moving Patriot systems into Iraq to help defend against any Iranian ballistic missile strike.
In early January, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles targeting two Iraqi bases housing coalition troops following a U.S. strike that killed Iran Iran Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
McKenzie said some preparatory material for the Patriots were already in Iraq but it would be “some days” before the missile defense batteries were operational.
The U.S. is also positioning counter rocket, artillery, and mortar, or C-RAM systems into Iraq to help protect the Patriot batteries. C-RAM systems can be used to defend bases from indirect fire and mortars, but McKenzie explained they’re often used to bolster the defense of Patriot systems.
When Patriot batteries are moved into position they become a “very high value target."
Camp Taji, the Iraqi base hit by 18 rockets on Wednesday, did not have a C-RAM system. McKenzie told reporters that CENTCOM has to “ruthlessly prioritize” where it places defensive equipment because there are more troops than systems and assets available to protect everyone.
McKenzie said it was an “unpleasant fact” but the U.S. “can’t have C-RAM everywhere.” The CENTCOM commander also noted that the C-RAM is “not a panacea.”
On Friday, McKenzie said the threat from Iran “remains very high” following the latest rocket attack against coalition forces involving an Iran-backed Shia militia.
McKenzie warned that tensions with Tehran have not come down and may be exacerbated by the high number of coronavirus, or COVID-19 deaths in Iran. McKenzie said CENTCOM believed Iran was under-reporting the number of COVID-19 deaths inside the country.
He cautioned that virus may be increasing pressure on Iranian leaders that could push the authoritarian regime to turn outward “to marshal against a common foe."
On Thursday evening manned coalition fighter aircraft launched retaliatory strikes against five Kataib Hezbollah storage depots that McKenzie said housed “advanced conventional weapons” supplied by Iran.
McKenzie said he was confident destroyed targets can “no longer” house Iran supplied weapons and parts. He said there was “success at all sites.”
McKenzie says he believes Iran has been deterred from conducting future state on state attacks through U.S. actions and recent defensive strikes.
“They [Iran] have always respected our capability, but they’ve had doubts about our will,” he said.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.