WASHINGTON – The Biden administration dramatically cuts the number of U.S. anti-missile systems in the Middle East as part of a major realignment of its military footprint there as it focuses the armed forces on challenges from China and Russia administration officials said.
The Pentagon is withdrawing around eight Patriot missile batteries from countries including Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, officials say. Another anti-missile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad System, is being withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, and the jet fighter squadrons assigned to the area are being reduced, those officials said.
The redeployment includes hundreds of soldiers who are members of units that operate or support these systems. The move comes as the military plans a full withdrawal from Afghanistan by this summer and after the United States halved its forces in Iraq last fall to 2,500 troops, as it said Iraqi forces could secure the country.
The latest cuts, which had not been previously reported, began earlier this month, following a June 2 appeal in which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin briefed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman changes, officials said. Most of the military equipment withdrawn comes from Saudi Arabia, officials said.
The United States moved Patriot anti-missile systems to Iraq after Iran fired missiles in January 2020 at the Al Asad base in western Iraq, where US troops are stationed. The Iranian attack was a response to an American drone attack that killed Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military leader.
The Pentagon began sending Patriot anti-missile batteries and the Thaad system to Saudi Arabia after a Saudi oil facility was attacked by Iranian drones in September 2019.
The decision to remove some of the defensive systems reflects the Pentagon’s view that the risk of escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran has diminished as the Biden administration continues nuclear talks with Tehran and has signaled its intention to ease sanctions if the 2015 nuclear deal is restored. .
However, Iranian-backed militias equipped with drones still pose a threat to US and coalition forces in Iraq, and have been accused of a series of drone attacks in recent weeks in Baghdad and the United States. northern Iraq. There have also been more than 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia this year, including at least one that hit a royal court complex.
Systems such as the Patriot do not protect against drone attacks, but are believed to help protect US forces against an ever-present ballistic missile threat. Iran has denied being behind the recent attacks.
A senior defense official said the equipment withdrawals amounted to a return to a more traditional level of defense for the region. Under former President Donald Trump, the United States actively deployed defensive systems as well as troops, jet fighter squadrons and warships to support its maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
The material did not deter Iran or its proxies from destabilizing actions, officials said. Saudi Arabia has also improved its defensive capabilities, intercepting most rocket attacks itself, they said.
In addition, US anti-missile systems have been used extensively in recent years and must be returned to the United States for maintenance and refurbishment, officials said.
“What you are seeing is a realignment of resources with strategic priorities,” said a senior defense official, who stressed that resources coming from the region are only part of what the United States has there. deployed.
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“We still maintain tens of thousands of forces in the region, we still have forces in Iraq and Syria, these forces are not leaving. We still have our bases in the countries of our Gulf partners, they are not closing, there is still a substantial presence, a substantial posture in the region, ”said the official.
A White House official said some Afghan personnel and equipment are being moved to the Middle East to respond to some of the threats in the region.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, declined to comment on the changes. Officials representing the affected countries did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Former officials who were involved in decisions to increase U.S. defenses in the region said circumstances have since changed, both in the Middle East and beyond.
“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. now a member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
She added: “Is there an increased risk? Yes. But it’s about managing risk, not eliminating risk.
A much-anticipated Biden administration review of its position of military strength is slated for next month, but the Pentagon is already moving chess pieces around a global chessboard to bolster its focus on countering China and Russia.
The Patriot systems, which have been in high demand for years, are not necessarily moved to the Indo-Pacific region, however. But sending them back to the United States for maintenance and freeing the personnel who operate and guard them allows the military to focus more elsewhere.
The move marks the second time this year that the United States has withdrawn Patriot anti-missile batteries from the Middle East. This spring, the US military withdrew at least three Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia and had considered withdrawing a Thaad.
Officials said the pullout could be seen by Russia and China, which are expanding their military and economic influence in the Middle East, as an opportunity to increase their goals.
But defense officials point to a patchwork of US involvement in the region, including foreign military sales, security cooperation, joint military exercises, and the maintenance of US ground troops.
“Yes, Russia and China will try to use posture adjustments to get the message across that the United States cannot be relied on,” a defense official said. “The reality is that none of them will replace the United States and what we provide.”
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