U.S. Sending Destroyer, F-35s, F-16s to Protect Merchant Ships in Middle East

July 17, 2023 6:10 PM
Guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) transits the Suez Canal July 14, 2023. US Navy Photo

The U.S. is sending a mix of Air Force fighters and a guided-missile destroyer to escort ships in and out of the Persian Gulf, a Pentagon press secretary said Monday.

The U.S. is dispatching a mix of F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters and F-16 Falcon fighters to supplement forces already in U.S. Central Command as Iranian forces continue to attempt to seize merchant ships in and around the Strait of Hormuz.

“In light of this continued threat and in coordination with our partners and allies. The department is increasing our presence and ability to monitor the Strait and surrounding waters. We call upon Iran to immediately cease these destabilizing actions that threaten the free flow of commerce through this strategic waterway,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters during a press briefing.
“The Secretary of Defense has ordered the deployment of the of the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner, F-35 fighters and F 16 fighters to the U.S. Central Command… defend us interests and safeguard freedom of navigation in the region.”

Singh did not have additional specifics on the number of fighters or their units. A U.S. Central Command spokesperson did not have additional details on the aircraft when contacted Monday by USNI News. F-16s are flown exclusively by the U.S. Air Force while F-35s variants are flown by the Navy, Air Force and Marines.

USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) deployed earlier this year with the Gerald Ford Carrier Strike Group and transited the Suez Canal on July 14, according to images posted by the Navy.

The moves of the fighters and Hudner follow the attack of a merchant ship Richard Voyager by Iranian Navy corvette IRINS Bayandor (81) off the Coast of Oman on July 5. Iranian forces attempted to seize another tanker off Oman earlier that day.

There are currently two other destroyers in the region: USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60) and USS McFaul (DDG-74). McFaul is also assigned to the Ford CSG.

Since the end of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has deemphasized the Middle East as a naval theater with more resources routed to the Pacific and Europe. Big deck amphibious warship USS Essex (LHD-2) was the last U.S. capital ship to operate in U.S. CENTCOM when it departed in early 2022. The last carrier in the region was Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), which departed the Middle East in 2021 after the Afghanistan withdrawal.

In addition to the destroyers, Expeditionary Sea Base USS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) is based in 5th Fleet. The ship, based on a converted oil tanker, is optimized for mine countermeasures and special operations.

Iran has attempted to seize 20 flagged ships since 2021. The most recent attacks follow Iran taking control of two tankers within a week of each other this year, USNI News reported

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
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