A High Altitude Terminal Area Defense Weapon System, or THAAD. (Adan Cazarez / US Army)
The United States is reducing air defense systems and force levels in the Middle East as the Biden administration realigns its military position to focus on fighting China and Russia.
Cmdr. Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica L. McNulty confirmed the plans but did not provide specific details, after the Wall Street Journal reported Eight Patriot missile batteries were withdrawn from countries including Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia on Friday.
A high-altitude terminal area defense system, or THAAD, has also been withdrawn from Saudi Arabia and fighter jet squadrons have been reduced, unnamed administration officials told the news agency. Troops have also been cut in Iraq, where the United States has already halved its presence to 2,500 earlier this year, according to the report.
“The Defense Secretary has ordered the commander of the US Central Command to withdraw certain forces and capabilities, mainly air defense, from the region this summer,” McNulty said in an email to Stars and Stripes on Saturday. âSome of these assets have returned to the United States for much needed maintenance and repairs. Some of them will be deployed in other regions.
The Pentagon is working to make sure high-demand assets are ready for emergencies, she said. Citing coordination with regional partners and operational security concerns, she said the Pentagon would not provide details on the locations, arrangements or timing of the withdrawals.
But officials told the Journal that the cuts started earlier this month and came mainly from Saudi Arabia. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin informed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the withdrawal in a phone call on June 2, officials told the newspaper.
“The decision was made in close coordination with host nations and in the interest of preserving our ability to meet our security commitments,” McNulty said.
The realignment of forces comes as the United States continues to end its two-decade war in Afghanistan and seeks to shift its military focus from counterinsurgency to strong competing rivals, primarily China.
Some Patriot systems, fighter squadrons, and thousands more troops were sent to the region under the Trump administration in late 2019, after Iran-backed Houthi militants attacked a Saudi oil field.
More batteries and troops were dispatched in January 2020 after Iran fired ballistic missiles at al-Asad airbase and a compound in northern Erbil where US troops were housed. A few days earlier, a US drone strike in Baghdad had killed a senior Iranian military official, Major General Qassem Soleimani.
Tensions between the United States and Iran escalated following Washington’s withdrawal from an Obama-era international nuclear deal with Tehran and as the Trump administration sought to pressure Iran to let him renegotiate it.
But Pentagon officials see a reduced threat from Tehran as the Biden administration focuses on negotiating a return of the United States to the 2015 pact, the Wall Street Journal reported. The latest withdrawal follows the removal of at least three Patriot systems earlier this year.
Former defense officials told the Journal circumstances have changed since the United States decided to increase its defenses in the region.
“As Saudi Arabia has improved its own defensive capabilities and the United States seeks to resolve tensions with Iran using diplomatic tools, this move makes sense,” said Kathryn Wheelbarger, former secretary. Acting Defense Assistant under the Trump administration and colleague. at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias continue to pose a threat to US forces in Iraq, where they have been blamed for dozens of rocket attacks targeting bases housing US troops and contractors. In recent months, militias appear to have switched to using small, low-flying drones armed with explosives in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Patriot batteries capable of shooting down ballistic missiles do not provide defense against small rockets or drones, but counter-rocket, artillery and mortar systems, or C-RAMs, deployed to protect anti-missile systems are capable of knocking down what has typically been Katyusha rocket barrages fired from makeshift trucks or ground launchers.
McNulty did not respond to whether the C-RAMs would remain in place in Iraq or what the United States is doing to strengthen its defenses against small drones.
Earlier in the week, however, the Marine Corps introduced its Integrated Marine Air Defense System, or MADIS, a vehicle-mounted low-altitude air defense system with counter-drone capabilities, deployed to Saudi Arabia, where the F / A-18D from the service Hornets have taken off from Prince Sultan Air Base in recent weeks.
Also this week, the military said the 4th Infantry Division became its first unit to undergo training at the docking station on countering small drones before deploying to CENTCOM. This included familiarization with the Small Mobile Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Integrated Defeat System, or M-LIDS, which is similar to MADIS.
The service will also send five-person teams of mobile trainers to be stationed in the area, the military said in a statement Monday.
The Pentagon is confident that its withdrawal will not have a negative impact on national security interests in the region, where the United States’ commitment is evident in its range of partnership activities, such as the sharing of intelligence, security assistance and overseas military sales, McNulty told Stars and Stripes.
The remaining land, air and naval footprint in the region, including tens of thousands of troops, is also large, she said.
“We maintain a robust position of strength in the region appropriate to the threat,” she said. âWe also retain the ability to quickly return forces to the Middle East if conditions warrant. ”