The Pentagon is rapidly doubling the amount of American firepower deployed in the Middle East in an effort to deter a wider regional war and to carry out possible airstrikes to defend American interests, U.S. officials said on Sunday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement on Saturday night that he had ordered a second aircraft carrier, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the eastern Mediterranean to join the carrier Gerald R. Ford “to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war” after Hamas’s attack on Israel last weekend. The Eisenhower is expected to arrive in the next few days.
The Air Force is also rushing additional land-based attack planes to the Persian Gulf region, doubling the number of F-16, A-10 and F-15E squadrons on the ground. Combined with the four squadrons of F/A-18 jets aboard each carrier, the United States will have an aerial armada of more than 100 attack planes, officials said.
The Pentagon has also sent a small team of Special Operations forces to Israel to assist with intelligence and planning for any operations to help locate and rescue the 150 hostages Hamas is believed to be holding, including some Americans.
For now, U.S. officials said, the deployment of additional forces is meant to deter Iran, Syria or any Iran-backed proxy groups, like Hezbollah, from joining the conflict. But as Israeli troops massed near the border with Gaza on Sunday, preparing for a likely ground invasion amid international pleas to conduct any operations with restraint, American commanders expressed fears that the United States could get dragged into the conflict.
Pentagon and U.S. intelligence officials are closely monitoring Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, as well as Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that have periodically carried out strikes against American military personnel based in both countries.
After a U.S. civilian contractor was killed and six other Americans were injured in March in northeast Syria by a drone that U.S. officials said was of “Iranian origin,” President Biden ordered two F-15E fighter jets to retaliate by launching airstrikes against militant sites linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. That prompted Iran-backed militias to launch a volley of rocket and drone attacks that injured another American.
U.S. warplanes were poised to conduct a second round of reprisal strikes, but the White House held off. Since then, the militia threats against Americans have subsided. But that could change with an Israeli invasion of Gaza, U.S. officials say.
The Ford was already in the Mediterranean when Mr. Austin last week ordered the warship to the eastern part of the sea, closer to Israel. The Ford carries four F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter squadrons, as well as electronic warfare and command and control aircraft. The carrier is also accompanied by warships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Eisenhower has a similar group of attack planes and warships.
The promise of additional military might was intended by the Biden administration to reassure Israelis of the U.S. commitment to their security and to demonstrate resolve to Hamas and Israel’s other adversaries in the region. It comes despite months of tension between Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel over the prime minister’s pursuit of judicial reforms that critics say are undemocratic.
The additional deployments also reinvigorate American might in the region, at least temporarily. The U.S. military presence in the region has been shrinking with the yearslong wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, and in response to the Biden administration’s stated pivot to focus on longer-term threats from China as well as the war in Ukraine.
Mr. Austin met with Israeli leaders on Friday and reaffirmed U.S. support to them in the first week of their war against Hamas.
Mr. Austin, who arrived from Brussels, where he was attending a NATO defense ministers’ meeting, got a firsthand look at some of the weapons and security aid that the Biden administration has rushed to Israel. A second shipment of arms arrived on Friday, Israeli officials said.
The Pentagon has sent Israel interceptors for its Iron Dome missile defense system as well as 250-pound “small-diameter bombs” designed to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties in a dense urban battlefield like Gaza, artillery shells and other ammunition, officials said.
Asked about the likelihood of civilian casualties in Gaza as Israeli troops prepare to mount a major ground assault there, Mr. Austin said Israel had the right to defend itself. He added that he had worked with Israeli forces over the years, when he was a top Army general.
“They are professional, they are disciplined and they are focused on the right things,” he told reporters after meeting for nearly two hours with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, and the Israeli war cabinet.
The United States provides Israel more than $3 billion in military assistance every year, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said that much of the equipment from that funding is already “in the pipeline” to be sent to Israel. The Pentagon has also positioned stockpiles of arms and ammunition worth about $2 billion at about six sites in Israel. The stockpiles provide weapons and ammunition for the Pentagon to use in Middle East conflicts, and the United States has also given Israel access to the supplies in emergencies.
Use of the stockpiles is set up in a “dual key” arrangement in which both countries sign off on their use. For instance, the Pentagon, with Israel’s permission, has tapped into the vast but little-known stockpile to help meet Ukraine’s dire need for artillery shells in the war with Russia.
Mr. Austin said in Brussels that the United States would not put conditions on how Israeli troops use the American weapons in their fight against Hamas.
“Our focus is to make sure that we get Israel what it needs in order to protect itself,” he said.