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 and continued through January 2021. They included three flights of B-52 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 December 20. ”We hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq,” Trump tweeted on December 23. “If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.” 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
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 December 31. “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.
Tensions 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 January 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 January 3, 2021, the Pentagon cancelled the redeployment and ordered the Nimitz to remain in the Middle East.
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
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
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 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
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 fighters based near Minot, North Dakota flew a 36-hour, round-trip mission to the Persian Gulf. The flights were designed “to send a clear deterrent message,” CENTCOM said. 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: "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."
Sources on U.S. troops deployed near Iran: Pentagon Statement on Afghanistan and Iraq (November 2020), Military Times (September 2020); Washington Post (January 2020); CRS reports on Bahrain (September 2020); Kuwait (October 2020); Oman (June 2020); Qatar (August 2020); Saudi Arabia (February 2020); UAE (September 2020)