Within hours of the horrific attack by Hamas, the U.S. began moving warships and aircraft to the region to be ready to provide Israel with whatever it needs to respond.
A second U.S. carrier strike group departs from Norfolk, Virginia, on Friday. Scores of aircraft are heading to U.S. military bases around the Middle East. And special operations forces are now assisting Israel’s military in planning and intelligence.
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The buildup reflects U.S. concern that the deadly fighting between Hamas and Israel could escalate into a more dangerous regional conflict. So the primary mission for those ships and warplanes for now is to establish a force presence that deters Hezbollah, Iran or others from taking advantage of the situation. But the forces the U.S. sent are capable of more than that.
The U.S. is also expediting the shipment of munitions and interceptors for Israel’s fight against Hamas.
A look at what weapons and options the U.S. military could provide:
Missiles for Iron Dome
The U.S. is providing some personnel and much-needed munitions to Israel. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that a small cell of special operations forces was now assisting Israel with intelligence and planning. They have not been tasked with hostage rescue, contrary to some reporting, a defense official said, but could if they were requested to do so.
The U.S. is also getting U.S. defense companies to expedite weapons orders by Israel that were already on the books. Chief among those is getting munitions for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system sped along.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that resupplying Iron Dome munitions and air defense systems was an immediate priority.
“We’re surging additional military assistance, including ammunition and interceptors to replenish Iron Dome,” Biden said. “We’re going to make sure that Israel does not run out of these critical assets to defend its cities and its citizens.”
Iron Dome’s missiles target rockets that approach one of its cities. According to Raytheon, Israel has 10 Iron Dome systems in place to protect its cities. Beginning with Saturday’s attack, Hamas has fired more than 5,000 rockets at Israel, most of which the system has been able to intercept, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Raytheon produces most of the missile components for Iron Dome in the U.S., and the Army has two Iron Dome systems in its stockpile.
Navy ships and planes
One of the most visible examples of the U.S. response was the announcement Sunday by the Pentagon to redirect the Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group to sail toward Israel. The carrier had just completed an exercise with the Italian Navy when the ship and its crew of about 5,000 were ordered to quickly sail to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The carrier provides a host of options. It’s a primary command and control operations center and can conduct information warfare. It can launch and recover E2-Hawkeye surveillance planes, recognized by their 24-foot (7-meter) diameter disc-shaped radar. The planes provide early warnings on missile launches, conduct surveillance and manage the airspace, detecting not only enemy aircraft but also directing U.S. movements.
The Ford carries F-18 fighter jets that could fly intercepts or strike targets. The carrier also has significant capabilities for humanitarian work, including an onboard hospital with an ICU and emergency room and about 40 medics, surgeons and doctors. It sails with helicopters that can be used to airlift critical supplies in or victims out.
On Friday, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group will leave its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, and sail for the Mediterranean, potentially doubling the Navy’s Israel response.
The Eisenhower had already been scheduled to deploy to the Mediterranean on a regular rotation, and the Ford is near the end of its deployment. But the Biden administration may decide to extend the Ford’s deployment and keep both strike groups out there, White House spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.
Air Force warplanes
The Pentagon has also ordered additional warplanes to bolster existing squadrons of A-10, F-15 and F-16 squadrons at bases throughout the Middle East and is ready to add more if needed.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Tuesday at an Atlantic Council event that the service was doubling up by directing units that were about to come home to remain in place and stay there along with their replacements.
The U.S. Air Force already has significant airpower in the region to conduct manned and unmanned operations, most notably in Syria where an Air Force F-16 last week was ordered to shoot down a Turkish drone that was posing a threat to U.S. ground forces operating there.
Kendall also said U.S. Air Force C-17s have landed in and departed from Israel since the attacks. The transport planes were picking up U.S. military personnel who were there for a military exercise that hadn’t started yet when the attacks began, the Air Force said in a statement.
Neither the Air Force nor Central Command would comment on what additional missions U.S. airpower might take on in response to the conflict.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.