The United States military remains ready to accelerate troop deployments in the Gulf region during heightened tensions, quashing fears that it is drawing down its military presence, defence analysts have said.
With the US recalling troops from both Europe and the Middle East, leading politicians have called on Washington to remain alert to potential threats from Iran, among others.
While America has highly capable defence systems that can more than match Iran’s precision missiles, they are not permanently based in the region. The withdrawal of batteries of Patriot missile defence and the state-of-the-art Thaad – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence – had caused concern about US commitment to the Middle East. Extra air-defence batteries were sent to Saudi Arabia after the Iranian attacks last September but were later withdrawn.
The US Air Force squadrons of F-16s plus an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter at Prince Sultan airbase in Saudi Arabia have been “shuffled around” by Pentagon planners in redeployment efforts.
This has caused some concern that America is shrinking its regional presence and weakening its position by changing force levels.
The effect on the region was less reassuring than “a more stable deployment”, said Henry Boyd of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “There are question marks around how much deterrence effect these short-term packages have versus a more sustained presence, particularly in a region where there are question marks over US commitment over the long term. It’s definitely on the table now.”
However defence analysts have argued that Washington will redeploy rapidly its high-end defence systems if relations deteriorate further with Iran.
“There is a recognition from the US that it cannot defend everything,” Justin Bronk, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said. “The Thaad system is very expensive, used for defending key installations for high-end threats and there’s never enough for demand.
“When there is heightened tension a Thaad battery can be flown in by a C-17 transporter very quickly but again it’s a response to need because they are in high demand.”
The Americans can also deploy several Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers to defend its Gulf allies.
Dr Bastian Giegerich of the IISS argued, however, that the security blanket provided by large number of US forces did not “automatically translate into additional US commitment”.
The director of defence and military analysis at the IISS added: “Everywhere people are looking at their dependencies on the US and will want to look at where they want to reduce those a little bit.”
There are concerns that the White House will continue to use troop withdrawals as a political tool in the presidential election to demonstrate that the US is not tied to endless military campaigns abroad. President Donald Trump has already said he will remove almost one third of American troops from Germany, where they have been based since the Second World War.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the UK Commons Defence Select Committee, told The National: "It's so important for us to work at all levels to ensure that the White House is aware of the consequences of withdrawing from this critical area of global tensions and not give space to Iran to expand."
He added that the US had concentrated more of its forces in the Pacific region with a greater focus on China’s growing power.
“We shouldn’t allow that to give space to Iran particularly as in a global recession more countries will retreat to nationalist and populist policies and there will be less willingness for international collaboration,” Mr Ellwood said.
He suggested that America’s risk aversion had been “taken advantage of by China, Russia and Iran”.