Unannounced Marine tour comes amid tensions over Iranian nuclear program
Gretel C. Kovach
10:14 a.m., Oct. 26, 2012
Amid mounting concern over Iran’s nuclear program and violence elsewhere in the region, U.S. Central Command quietly dispatched a Marine fighter jet squadron from San Diego to an undisclosed country in the Middle East, U-T San Diego has learned.
The deployment follows threats by the U.S. and Israel of military strikes if needed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, the conflict in Syria is threatening to drag Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan into war, Iraq is beset by renewed violence, and terrorist groups hoping to capitalize on political upheaval in the region covet Syria’s chemical weapons and Libyan arms.
Against this tense geopolitical backdrop, aviation spotters tracked a dozen jets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, an F/A-18 Hornet squadron based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, en route in late September through Europe.
The heavily armed jets — capable of firing 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, cluster munitions, air-to-air missiles and a six-barrel 20 mm gun — are used for a variety of missions, including ground attack, escort, enemy air defense suppression, reconnaissance and close air support of ground forces.
U.S. Central Command and the Marine command in the region declined to say which country the squadron deployed to or to comment in detail on its mission, citing political and security sensitivities of the host nation and its neighbors.
Oil-rich nations in the area fear that broadcasting the presence of U.S. combat units on their soil would be akin to painting themselves with a bull’s-eye. They also must contend with anti-American sentiment and radical Islamist groups among their populations.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, coordinates with defense officials on force requirements.
“U.S. presence and operations in the region are designed to strengthen military-to-military relationships with partner nations and improve regional stability,” said Army Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for the combatant command that includes most of the Middle East as well as Afghanistan.
“Like other U.S. areas of responsibility, releasing information of U.S. basing and missions is based on formal agreements with host nations. In most cases, it is inappropriate to discuss specific operational details.”
The commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing said the “Black Knights,” a squadron of about 200 Marines under the leadership of commanding officer Lt. Col. David Kalinske, was serving in the Middle East for “theater security cooperation,” to train and otherwise support regional allies.
Asked whether the squadron was ready to take on a larger role given the tensions with Iran, Brig. Gen. Steven Busby said: “Like any Marine would be, you’re prepared to at a moment’s notice. Like we say: ‘the most ready when the nation is least ready.’ … If someone calls for a particular mission, that’s our job to be ready and we take that serious, wherever it might be. It could be in the Middle East, it could be someplace else.”
During a visit last week with Marines stationed in Kuwait at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter mentioned tensions with Iran and the important role the unidentified unit was playing in the post-Sept. 11 era.
Amid the drawdown in Afghanistan and renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the United States remains committed to the Middle East, Carter said during a trip that also included stops in Iraq and Qatar, according to comments distributed by the Pentagon’s American Forces Press Service.
U.S. Central Command is confronted with a changing set of issues in the region that are just as weighty as the wars of the last decade, Carter said: “Iran — very serious. All of the problems that you see didn’t begin with the Arab Spring. They are made visible by the Arab Spring, all the tension in this region.”
The “velocity of conflict” has increased, but so has the opportunity to “snuff” it out, he added.
“In the old days, you could wind up real slowly before you delivered a punch,” Carter said. “That was OK. For Desert Storm, we took months getting ready, bringing stuff in. All the while saying, ‘Brother, in six months, you’re going to be sorry you messed around with the United States.’ Now you have to be postured … where it’s, ‘Brother, you’re going to be sorry in six hours that you messed with the United States.’
“[It’s] got to happen very fast, and so the presence, what we have here daily, matters in a way, strategically, that it didn’t matter 20 years ago,” he told the Marines.
Analysts on the military and Iran said the main thrust of the U.S.’s efforts to prevent Iran from enriching weapons-grade uranium and developing nuclear munitions remains diplomatic and economic, through crippling sanctions that have prevented the country from exporting half its oil and caused its currency, the rial, to lose nearly half its value in a week this month.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is also maintaining two aircraft carrier strike groups in the region longer than planned and deploying additional units such as the Miramar fighter squadron as both deterrent and potential response if Iran comes close to developing nuclear weapons or threatens oil supplies, analysts said.
Stratfor, an intelligence and geopolitics news service, noted the deployment of VMFA-314 and reported that an Air Force F-22 Raptor squadron had deployed earlier this year to the Persian Gulf. Given “the fluid conflicts in North Africa, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as the current tensions with Iran,” Stratfor concluded that “the United States … could simply be positioning military assets in a region that is rife with conflict and that may eventually require rapid military intervention or action.”
Alireza Nader, a policy analyst for RAND, said, “The message is really clear, we have no intention right now of invading Iran.” At the same time, “I think the U.S. is signaling to Iran that it is committed to deterring Iran’s potential impediment of shipping through the Persian Gulf. So part of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is to reassure our allies that we are going to maintain a safe, secure environment for commerce and energy,” Nader said.
Leonard Spector, an expert on nuclear proliferation and deputy director of the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said, “We have said that the military option is on the table. Israel has done even more saber-rattling. But at the moment the trigger for an actual intervention is not at hand,” for instance if Iran were to bar international inspectors or hold a “cold test” of a potential nuclear weapon without fissile material.
“You could imagine that for precautionary purposes, because there might be something that happens suddenly, you want to have additional forces in the region with the capability to attack certain targets. So it is not unexpected that you would see a little bit of a buildup in order to be ready.
“And maybe if the word gets out, to do a little intimidation,” Spector said.