U.S. Military Deployments Around Iran

In late 2020, the Pentagon ramped up aerial and naval deployments around Iran amid military tensions in the Persian Gulf. The new deployments began in late November 2020 and continued through October 2021. They included eight flights of B-52 or B-1 bombers, a nuclear-powered submarine and a carrier strike group led by the USS Nimitz. President Donald Trump also threatened Iran after the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was hit by rockets allegedly fired by an Iraqi militia backed by Iran on Dec. 20, 2020. ”We hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 23, 2020. “If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.” B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf continued during the Biden administration. U.S. military deployments included:

  • November 21: First B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf
  • November 27: U.S. deployed the USS Nimitz to the Arabian Sea
  • December 10: Second B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf
  • December 21: Nuclear-powered submarine crossed the Strait of Hormuz
  • December 30: Third B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf
  • December 31: The Pentagon ordered the USS Nimitz to return to base in Bremerton, WA
  • January 3: The Pentagon canceled USS Nimitz return and ordered it to stay in Central Command theater of operations
  • January 6: Fourth B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf
  • January 17: Fifth B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf
  • January 27: Sixth B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf
  • March 7: Seventh B-52 flights to the Persian Gulf
  • October 30: B-1B flight to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal

Iranian officials condemned the increased tempo of U.S. deployments and public threats. “Instead of fighting Covid in US, @realDonaldTrump & cohorts waste billions to fly B52s & send armadas to OUR region,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Dec. 31, 2020. “Iran doesn't seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.” The Iranian mission to the United Nations demanded that the Security Council curtail U.S. “military adventurism” in the Gulf.

US troops METensions between Washington and Tehran escalated ahead of the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3, 2020. The Pentagon sent additional assets to the Middle East amid intelligence reports of about plans by Iranian-backed militias to attack U.S. and allied interests in Iraq. But just two days before the anniversary, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller ordered the USS Nimitz to return to base in Bremerton, Washington. On Jan. 3, 2021, the Pentagon cancelled the redeployment and ordered the Nimitz to remain in the Middle East.

 

Timeline
 

November 21: First B-52 Flights to the Persian Gulf

The Pentagon ordered two B-52H Stratofortress bombers based near Minot, North Dakota on a round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. Civilian trackers spotted the bombers flying through Israeli and Jordanian airspace before the pilots shut off their transponders. The bombers were joined by U.S. fighter jets and refueling aircraft during the more than 24-hour flight. The mission was designed to “deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies,” U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement. “The United States does not seek conflict but continues to be postured and committed to respond to any contingency around the world.”

CENTCOM statement on Nov. 21, 2020: "U.S. Air Force B-52H 'Stratofortress' aircrews assigned to the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot Air Force Base, N.D., conducted a short-notice, long-range mission into the Middle East on Nov. 21 to deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies.

"The non-stop mission demonstrates the U.S. military’s ability to deploy combat airpower anywhere in the world on short notice and integrate into CENTCOM operations to help preserve regional stability and security.

"'Bomber Task Force missions highlight the robust and varied USAF capabilities that can be made rapidly available in the CENTCOM AOR,' said Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, 9th Air Force (Air Forces Central) commander. 'The ability to quickly move forces into, out of and around the theater to seize, retain and exploit the initiative is key to deterring potential aggression.  These missions help bomber aircrews gain familiarity with the region’s airspace and command and control functions and allow them to integrate with the theater’s U.S. and partner air assets, increasing the combined force’s overall readiness.'

"During the mission, the bomber aircrews integrated with air operations centers and other AFCENT assets such as F-15E 'Strike Eagles,' F-16 'Fighting Falcons,' KC-10 'Extenders' and KC-135 'Stratotankers.'

"CENTCOM is committed to preserving and protecting the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce throughout the region.  The United States does not seek conflict but continues to be postured and committed to respond to any contingency around the world.

"The last U.S. long-range bomber presence in the Middle East was in early 2020."

 

November 27: U.S. Deploys the USS Nimitz to the Arabian Sea

A U.S. aircraft carrier transits the Arabian Sea
A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier transits the Arabian Sea
The U.S. Navy redeployed the USS Nimitz from the Indian Ocean, where it had participated in a joint military exercise with Australia, India and Japan. The carrier group was ordered back to the Gulf because of the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon said in a statement. “This action ensures we have sufficient capability available to respond to any threat and to deter any adversary from acting against our troops during the force reduction.” The carrier and accompanying warships increased the size of the Fifth Fleet from 15 to 20 ships.

U.S. Navy statement to Reuters on Nov. 28, 2020: “There were no specific threats that triggered the return of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group…This action ensures we have sufficient capability available to respond to any threat and to deter any adversary from acting against our troops during the force reduction.”

 

December 10: Second B-52 Flights to the Persian Gulf

A B-52 bomber takes off from Barksdale Air Force Base
A B-52 bomber takes off from Barksdale Air Force Base
The Pentagon ordered two additional B-52H Stratofortress bombers based near Bossier City, Louisiana on a 36-hour round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. They made a “wide loop” near Qatar and stayed away from the Iranian coastline, the Associated Press reported. In the region, the bombers were joined by warplanes from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. “We do not seek conflict, but we must remain postured and committed to respond to any contingency or in opposition to any aggression,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the CENTCOM commander, said in a statement.

CENTCOM statement on Dec. 10, 2020: "A pair of U.S. Air Force B-52H 'Stratofortresses' assigned to the Barksdale Air Force Base-headquartered 2nd Bomb Wing operated in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility with other U.S. Air Force and regional partner aircraft in the second mission in as many months.

"The short-notice, non-stop mission was designed to underscore the U.S. military’s commitment to its regional partners, while also validating the ability to rapidly deploy combat power anywhere in the world, said the senior commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

"'The ability to fly strategic bombers halfway across the world in a non-stop mission, and to rapidly integrate them with multiple regional partners demonstrates our close working relationships and our shared commitment to regional security and stability,' said U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) commander, Gen. Frank McKenzie.

"While assuring allies and partners, the mission was also designed to deter aggression.

"'Potential adversaries should understand that no nation on earth is more ready and capable of rapidly deploying additional combat power in the face of any aggression,' said McKenzie.

"Our ability to work together as partners on a mission like this heightens our collective readiness to respond to any crisis or contingency.

"The U.S. Air Force routinely flies a variety of aircraft and units throughout the Middle East, which is one way that CENTCOM promotes regional security. Temporary long-range bomber deployments into the region can be traced back to at least 2015.

"Aircrews use transponders and operate in conformity with international law, including with due regard for the safety of navigation of aircraft during every flight, and coordinate with relevant nations.

"'We do not seek conflict,' McKenzie said, 'but we must remain postured and committed to respond to any contingency or in opposition to any aggression.'"

 

December 21: Nuclear-powered submarine crosses the Strait of Hormuz

The USS Georgia, one of the Navy’s four Ohio-class submarines, crossed the Strait of Hormuz. The crossing was the first U.S. submarine transit of the narrow international waterway in nearly a decade, The New York Times reported. The Georgia could “carry up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles” and transport “up to 66 Special Operations Forces,” the Navy said in a statement. The submarine was accompanied by two Ticonderoga-class cruisers also carrying missiles.

CENTCOM statement on Dec. 22, 2020: "The nuclear-power Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia (SSGN 729) along with the guided-missile cruisers USS Port Royal (CG 73) and USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) transited the Strait of Hormuz entering the Arabian Gulf, Dec. 21.

"Georgia’s presence in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations (AOO) demonstrates the U.S. Navy’s ability to sail and operate wherever international law allows.

"As an inherently flexible maneuver force, capable of supporting routine and contingency operations, Georgia’s presence demonstrates the United States’ commitment to regional partners and maritime security with a full spectrum of capabilities to remain ready to defend against any threat at any time.

"SSGNs are one of the most versatile platforms in the fleet, equipped with superior communications capabilities and the ability to carry up to 154 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles. The platform can also be configured to host up to 66 Special Operations Forces.

"The 5th Fleet AOO encompasses about 2.5 million square miles of water area and includes the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean. The expanse is comprised of 20 countries and includes three chokepoints, critical to the free flow of global commerce."

 

December 30: Third B-52 Flights to the Persian Gulf

A B-52 bomber after aerial refueling
A B-52 bomber detaches after aerial refueling 
A third pair of B-52H Stratofortress fighters based near Minot, North Dakota flew a 30-hour, round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. The bombers were “combat-ready,” McKenzie said, and signaled that the U.S. military was “ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests.” The flight was reportedly a preemptive response to intelligence indicating plans for an Iranian-backed attack against the U.S. military in Iraq ahead of January 3, the anniversary of Soleimani’s death. “We're seeing planning for, particularly in Iraq for complex attacks that require Iranian assistance in order to be pulled off,” a senior U.S. official told Fox News.

CENTCOM Statement on Dec. 30, 2020: "U.S. Air Force B-52H 'Stratofortress' aircrews from the Minot Air Force Base, N.D.-headquartered 5th Bomb Wing made a deliberate appearance in the Middle East today to underscore the U.S. military's commitment to regional security and demonstrate a unique ability to rapidly deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice.

"The two-ship deployment also delivers a clear deterrent message to anyone who intends to do harm to Americans or American interests.

"'The United States continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests" said Gen. Frank McKenzie, Commander, U.S. Central Command. "We do not seek conflict, but no one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack."

"The United States continues to work closely with allies and partner to advance regional security and stability.

"This mission is the third bomber deployment into CENTCOM's area of operation in the last 45 days."

 

December 31: The Pentagon orders the USS Nimitz to return to base in Bremerton, WA

The Pentagon ordered the USS Nimitz, the sole aircraft carrier in the Middle East, to return to Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington. Acting Secretary Miller wanted to send a “de-escalatory” signal to Iran with the redeployment, The New York Times reported. He reportedly overruled a request by Gen. McKenzie to extend the USS Nimitz’s deployment amid intelligence reports that Iran and its proxies were preparing an attack against the U.S. military and its allies in Iraq. “We are glad that we can conclude 2020 by announcing these warriors are headed home,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Department of Defense statement on Dec. 31, 2020: "Following its role in providing support to American troops in Somalia and the arrival of follow-on operational capability, Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller has directed that the USS Nimitz will transit directly home to complete a nearly 10-month deployment.

"'The Secretary appreciates the hard work, commitment, and flexibility of more than 5,000 Sailors and Marines of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group who repeatedly demonstrated operational excellence in providing air support to combat operations against terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and ensuring maritime security in critical waterways," said Jonathan Rath Hoffman, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.

"'The Nimitz team provided persistent air cover during the troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and conducted operations and exercises that strengthened enduring partnerships and alliances in the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command areas of responsibility."

"'They conducted themselves admirably throughout the deployment despite the many challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic."

"'The sacrifices and services of the Sailors, Marines, and their families is greatly appreciated by the entire Department of Defense and were in the finest traditions of the U.S. naval service. We are glad that we can conclude 2020 by announcing these warriors are headed home."

 

January 3: The Pentagon cancels USS Nimitz return and orders it to stay in Central Command theater of operations

A B-52 bomber after aerial refueling
The USS Georgia transits the Strait of Hormuz
The Pentagon ordered the Nimitz to remain in the Middle East, cancelling a prior order for the carrier to return to home base. Acting Secretary Miller cited “recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials” as the reason for the reversal. “No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America,” he said in a statement. President Trump personally overruled Acting Secretary Miller’s order, Politico reported. The president was reportedly responding to threats made by Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi that Trump would not “escape law and justice” for the killing of Soleimani. 

Department of Defense statement on Jan. 3, 2021: "The following statement is attributable to Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller.

"'Due to the recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment. The USS Nimitz will now remain on station in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America."

 

January 6: Fourth B-52 Flights to the Persian Gulf

A fourth pair of B-52H Stratofortress bombers based near Minot, North Dakota flew a 36-hour, round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. "This mission is a measured approach to demonstrate that we are committed to the defense of our forces in the region and are capable of responding to any aggression on short notice," CENTCOM said in a statement. The U.S. continued to receive intelligence about a plans for an attack by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, a Pentagon official told CNN. "We continue to see increasing levels of readiness across Iranian defensive systems," the official said. 

Statement by CENTCOM on January 7"Two U.S. Air Force B-52H bombers conducted a Bomber Task Force mission today in the Middle East to demonstrate the U.S. military's continuing commitment to regional security and deterrence to aggression.

"The aircrews flew a 36-hour, non-stop mission from the 5th Bomb Wing's home at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to the Arabian Gulf and back to send a clear deterrent message by displaying the ability to deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice.

"The temporary deployment, the fourth in the last two months and the command's first bomber mission of 2021, is one element of a robust U.S. defensive posture that includes the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) aircraft carrier and other assets.

"The B-52H 'Stratofortress' is a long-range, heavy bomber that can perform a variety of missions. The bomber can fly at high subsonic speeds at altitudes reaching 50,000 feet. It has an unrefueled combat range in excess of 8,800 miles. The B-52H can carry precision guided ordnance with worldwide precision navigation.

"'America doesn't seek conflict,' said U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Urban, U.S. Central Command spokesman. 'This mission is a measured approach to demonstrate that we are committed to the defense of our forces in the region and are capable of responding to any aggression on short notice."

 

January 17: Fifth B-52 Flights to the Persian Gulf

A B-52 bomber after midair refueling
A B-52 bomber after midair refueling

A fifth pair of B-52H Stratofortress bombers flew from Minot, North Dakota, on a 36-hour, round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. The mission was a so-called "presence patrol" showcasing U.S. military power, McKenzie said. “Short-term deployments of strategic assets are an important part of our defensive posture in the region,” he said. Zarif insisted that the flights would not intimidate Iran. "While we have not started a war in over 200 years, we don’t shy from crushing aggressors," he tweeted

Statement by CENTCOM on January 17: "U.S. Air Force B-52H 'Stratofortress"' aircrews successfully completed a presence patrol in the Middle East today, marking the second such mission of 2021.

"Bomber Task Force missions are observable ways to demonstrate the U.S. military's continuing commitment to regional security, said U.S. Central Command’s commander.

"'Short-term deployments of strategic assets are an important part of our defensive posture in the region,' said Gen. Frank McKenzie. 'The training opportunity and continued integration with regional partners improves readiness and delivers a clear and consistent message in the operational environment to both friends and potential adversaries, alike."

"This is the fifth Bomber Task Force mission into the Middle East in the last few months."

 

January 27: Sixth B-52 Flight to the Persian Gulf

The Pentagon ordered two additional B-52H Stratofortress bombers based near Bossier City, Louisiana on a round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. The planes flew over Saudi Arabia, where they were joined by Royal Saudi Air Force F-15s, the Associated Press reported. The flights were the first heavy bomber flights to the region since President Joe Biden was sworn into office. "The timing was determined based on the value of deterrence after inauguration,” a U.S. military official told DefenseOne. “I do know if we can continue to deter Iranian aggression… that it’ll give the policymakers more decision space.” CENTCOM emphasized in an official statement that it did "not seek conflict" but was "postured and committed to respond to any contingency around the world."

Statement by CENTCOM on January 27"For the third time this year, U.S. Air Force B-52H 'Stratofortress' aircrews assigned to the 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, La., successfully completed a presence patrol in the Middle East today.

"This long-range, short-duration defensive mission was intended to demonstrate the U.S. military’s ability to deploy airpower anywhere in the world to deter potential aggression and showcase the U.S. commitment to regional security.

"During the mission, the bomber aircrews integrated with air operations centers and other AFCENT assets such as F-15E 'Strike Eagles,' F-16 'Fighting Falcons,' KC-10 'Extenders' and KC-135 'Stratotankers.'

"The B-52H 'Stratofortress' is a long-range, heavy bomber that can perform a variety of missions. The bomber can fly at high subsonic speeds at altitudes reaching 50,000 feet. It has an unrefueled combat range in excess of 8,800 miles. The B-52H can carry a wide variety of precision guided ordnance. CENTCOM is committed to partner security and preserving regional stability. The United States does not seek conflict, but continues to be postured and committed to respond to any contingency around the world."

 

March 7: Seventh B-52 Flights to the Persian Gulf

B52 Bombers
Pilots from the 69th Bomb Squadron board a B-52 bomber

The Pentagon ordered a pair of B-52H Stratofortress bombers based at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota on a round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. The bombers were escorted by Israeli, Qatari and Saudi warplanes at different points during the trip. Four Israeli F-15 fighters joined the bombers as they flew through Israeli airspace, The Times of Israel reported. The bomber flights followed a rocket attack against an Iraqi base housing U.S. troops on March 3. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the U.S. planned an "appropriate" response for the rocket attack. "The message to those that would carry out such an attack is that: Expect us to do what's necessary to defend ourselves," Austin told ABC News the same day as the bomber flight. 

Statement by CENTCOM on March 7: "A pair of U.S. Air Force B-52H 'Stratofortresses' flew a multinational patrol mission across the Middle East today to deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the U.S. military’s commitment to security in the region. 

"Multiple partner nations and U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft accompanied the U.S. bombers at different points during the flight, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  

"The U.S. Air Force routinely moves aircraft and personnel into, out of, and around the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to meet mission requirements, and to train with regional partners, underscoring the importance of strategic partnerships. 

"Temporary long-range bomber deployments into the region dates back to 2015. This was the fourth bomber deployment into the Middle East this year."

 

October 30: B-1B Flight to the Persian Gulf

Israeli F-16s escort a U.S. B-1 bomber
Israeli F-15s escort a U.S. B-1 bomber

The Pentagon ordered a B-1B bomber based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota to fly over the Strait of Hormuz, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The strategic bomber was escorted by fighters from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia at different points during the trip. “The mission is the fifth of its kind in 2021 and was designed to send a clear message of reassurance across the region,” U.S. Air Forces Central Command said. The flights followed a drone attack on U.S. forces based at al Tanf in southern Syria that U.S. officials blamed on Iran and its allies.

Statement by CENTCOM on October 30: One U.S. Air Force B-1B “Lancer” aircrew flew a presence patrol mission in the Central Region that included several partner nation air forces today.

The bomber task force mission – the fifth in U.S. Central Command’s area of operation this year – was intended to deliver a clear message of reassurance, said the command’s top general.

“We are stronger together,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander, U.S. Central Command. “Military readiness for any contingency or mission – from crisis response to multilateral exercises to one-day presence patrols like this – depend on reliable partnerships.”

Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia joined the patrol with fighter escorts over their respective airspaces. The five-hour, non-stop patrol originated in the Indian Ocean, flew over the Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Red Sea, Suez Canal, Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman before departing the region.

McKenzie said these types of missions can achieve a range of effects and are an important part of the command’s force posture.

CENTCOM has coordinated four similar patrols – three in January and one in March – since the beginning of the year.

 

Sources for troop deployment
Government sources: Pentagon statement on Iraq (November 2020); State Department on Syria (October 2021)
Media reports: Military Times (September 2020) The Washington Post (January 2020)
CRS reports: Bahrain (April 2021); Jordan (June 2021) Kuwait (January 2021); Oman (June 2020); Qatar (October 2021); Saudi Arabia (June 2021); UAE (April 2021)
Photo credits: All photos from Department of Defense [Public Domain]

 

Garrett Nada, managing editor of "The Iran Primer" contributed updates to this report in 2021.

Updated