WASHINGTON — The U.S. military intends to protect American commercial ships against Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz but will not provide naval escorts in every case, the newly installed defense secretary said Wednesday.
The aim of the U.S. naval and air presence in the Gulf area is to deter Iran from threatening to stop or seize any American commercial ship, Mark Esper told reporters on his first full day as Pentagon chief.
Esper, who previously served as the Army’s top civilian official, was confirmed by the Senate and sworn at the White House on Tuesday, ending a seven-month absence of a confirmed defense secretary.
He indicated that addressing the Iran issue is one of his first priorities. Threats to navigation in the Gulf have become an international issue in recent months as Iran has responded to increased U.S. economic sanctions that have strangled its oil exports.
Last week Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Afterward, U.S. Central Command said it began extra U.S. aerial patrols. Also last week, the U.S. Navy said it destroyed one, and possibly two, Iranian drones that had made what the Navy called threatening moves against the amphibious assault ship Boxer in the Strait.
The U.S. military says that when it destroyed an Iranian drone last week over the Strait of Hormuz, it also took aim at a second drone.
Esper said he would travel next week to the Florida headquarters of Central Command, which is responsible for military operations across the Middle East, including in the Gulf region.
Asked by a reporter whether the U.S. will escort commercial ships as they transit the Strait of Hormuz to or from the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman, Esper noted that the British navy already has begun providing added naval security for British vessels.
"We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it," Esper said.
Pressed to elaborate, Esper said he was not announcing that the U.S. will be escorting all U.S. commercial ships in or around the Gulf.
“To the degree United States vessels need escort, we will be there, we will be available to them,” he said. “I use ‘escort’ broadly. ‘Escort’ doesn’t mean” a warship would be sailing “right behind” a commercial vessel.
“What I mean by it is, as I said, to the degree that circumstances warrant, that we think that maybe a U.S. ship may be under some type of threat ... (of) being stopped or being seized, then we would want to make sure we have the capacity to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
In some cases that may be only airborne surveillance of the ship’s path, he said. Or it may mean having a Navy warship “within proximity.” He added: “I don’t necessarily mean that every U.S.-flagged ship going through the Strait has a destroyer right behind it.”
The Trump administration is seeking to build an international coalition to monitor and potentially escort commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and other vulnerable waterways in the Middle East as a way of deterring Iranian provocations. Called “Operation Sentinel,” the plan has thus far attracted few, if any, commitments from other nations.
On Monday, Britain announced plans to develop and deploy a Europe-led “maritime protection mission” to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Esper said he sees this as complementary to the approach Washington is taking.