The US Department of Defense (DoD) is sending fifth-generation stealth fighters and an additional guided missile destroyer to the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, in light of an increase in perceived threat levels presented by regional actors such as Iran.

The disclosure was made during a DoD press briefing on 17 July, where is was revealed that F-35 and F-16 fighters would be sent to CENTCOM to bolster US forces in the Middle East region. The number of aircraft or mission duration was not revealed.

Already on station with CENTCOM are F-16 fighters and A-10 ground-attack aircraft, with the F-35 making a rare deployment to the Middle East. In addition, the guided missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner has also been redirected to the region.

The move comes on the back of a spate of incidents in recent weeks involving Iranian and Russian forces at sea and in the air, which have either drawn US ire or have caused a direct response to deter future incidents.

A still showing a Russian Su-27 fighter flying close to a US MQ-9 Reaper drone, during counter-ISIS operations over Syria. Credit: CENTCOM

Consecutive incidents on 5-6 July saw Russian combat aircraft interdicting US military MQ-9 Reaper drones operating over Syria, where Russia has a significant military presence in support of President Bashar Assad. The Russian fighters flew close to the US drones, dropping parachute flares in their flightpath.

“We urge Russian forces in Syria to cease this reckless behavior and adhere to the standards of behavior expected of a professional air force so we can resume our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS,” read a 6 July statement from CENTCOM.

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Iran’s maritime actions raise concerns

Iran meanwhile been involved in ongoing actions against commercial shipping operating in the Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Sea of Oman, under what Tehran classified as maritime security operations. This includes attempted and successful boarding of shipping in transit through internationally recognised transit corridors, in breach of maritime law, as well as firing directly at merchant vessels.

In May this year, US Navy (USN) warned that Iranian naval actions in regional waters are a “present threat” to commercial shipping, following the seizure of the Panama-flagged oil tanker Niovi by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) while it was in transit through the Strait of Hormuz on 3 May.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner has been dispatched to the Middle East. Credit: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Malachi Lakey

A previous incident, six days earlier, saw the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy seize Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Advantage Sweet while it transited international waters in the Gulf of Oman.

In June, the USN and UK Royal Navy were forced to respond to a distress call from a merchant vessel transiting the Strait of Hormuz, which had reported that three Iranian fast-attack boats with armed personnel pursued at a close distance. The fast-attack craft were assessed to be from the IRGCN.

Earlier this month US naval forces successfully prevented two attempted seizures by the Iranian Navy in the Gulf of Oman, which saw Iranian forces firing directly at, and hitting, commercial tankers in transit through regional waters.