The United States is expected to reduce its forces near the Middle East by removing the Naval Rapid Reaction Force from the Mediterranean



CNN

A naval rapid reaction force is expected to leave the eastern Mediterranean in the coming weeks and return to the United States, according to defense officials, in a significant reduction of US forces in the region.

The amphibious ready group USS Bataan and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) are expected to begin sailing toward the United States in March, an official said, although the exact timeline for departure is unclear. The Pentagon could still decide to keep the group in the region if the situation deteriorates quickly.

The Marine Rapid Reaction Force was first deployed in July and was sent to the region in October. It had previously been extended to remain in the eastern Mediterranean, according to CNN. Able to conduct amphibious and some special operations, the Marines are also trained to assist in evacuations, which is one of the reasons they were sent at the beginning of the Gaza war. But as the war approached its fifth month, the need to evacuate American citizens did not materialize.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

The United States maintained an aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship in the eastern Mediterranean shortly after the October 7 attacks in Israel. The warships were intended to deter Iranian proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, from escalating an already volatile situation and risking a broader regional conflict.

At least for now, Iranian proxies in the region have halted their attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria. After a continuing series of attacks following the beginning of the Gaza war – US forces have been attacked at least 170 times since the war began – there has been no attack on US forces for more than three weeks. The sudden cessation of attacks comes after a one-way drone attack that killed three US service members and injured about 70 others in Jordan at the end of January.

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“We certainly welcome that there were no attacks,” Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said at a press conference on Thursday. “I think we sent a very strong message with our strikes, and we will continue to do so if necessary, and we will do so at a time and place of our choosing.”

The expected return of the USS Bataan will mean that the United States does not have a warship capable of operating combat aircraft in the eastern Mediterranean for the first time since October. The Bataan group includes 4,000 Sailors and Marines – nearly 2,000 of whom are part of the 26th MEU – and carries more than two dozen fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft.

The United States still has a guided-missile destroyer in the eastern Mediterranean and other warships nearby that could be sent to the region if necessary. The aircraft carrier strike group USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is currently operating in the Red Sea. Navy F/A-18 fighter jets from the aircraft carrier and destroyers from the group conducted multiple strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, as well as repeatedly intercepting Houthi launches against commercial and naval vessels. On several occasions, the United States has also destroyed naval drones.

Shortly after October 7, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group to head to the eastern Mediterranean. Days later, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier strike group deployed from the United States and headed to the region. The amphibious ready group USS Bataan, which was already in the Gulf of Oman as part of an effort to deter Iranian aggression, has also been sent to waters near Israel.

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This puts three main groups of warships, including thousands of sailors and a Marine Ready Response Force, in the Middle East at the same time, a major concentration of US forces in response to the war in Gaza.

But in January, with the war reaching the three-month mark and showing no signs of a permanent ceasefire, the United States began withdrawing some of its forces from the region. The Ford Carrier Strike Group, which had been extended several times, departed the eastern Mediterranean in early January, to be replaced by the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and the Naval Rapid Reaction Force.

The United States has also been actively working to mediate a reduction in fighting along the Lebanese border between Israel and Hezbollah.

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