The troop cuts coupled with the impending departure of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group in the Gulf have fuelled allies’ concerns that the US is abandoning the region. Those worries are compounded by fears that Iran may strike out at the US or allies in retaliation for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Iran has blamed the death on Israel, which has been suspected in previous killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.
US officials are also worried about a possible Iranian retaliatory strike on the anniversary of the US airstrike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, and senior Iraqi militia leaders near Baghdad’s airport in early January.
Iranian-backed militias routinely launch rockets near installations in Iraq where US and Iraqi troops are based, and officials worry about a larger, more deadly assault.
“We do not seek conflict,” McKenzie said, “but we must remain postured and committed to respond to any contingency or in opposition to any aggression.”
A senior military official, who spoke to a small group of reporters on the condition of anonymity to provide details of the mission, said the administration believes that the risk of an Iranian attack on US or allied interests in the region is a bit higher than normal now, and the Pentagon wants to ensure that Tehran thinks twice before doing anything.
Adding to the concerns is the presidential transition in the US following Joe Biden’s November victory over Trump. The official said Iran or other adversaries often believe the US may be weaker or slower to respond during a political transition, which American officials flatly deny.
Bomber deployments and short-term flights to the Middle East and Europe have been used in the past to message Iran, a few times in the last two years.
According to officials, the bombers flew out of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Wednesday, local time, and conducted the flight into Thursday. Officially nicknamed the Stratofortress and informally known as the Big Ugly Fat Fellow, the B-52 gained lasting fame in Vietnam as an aerial terror.
The two bombers left the US on Wednesday evening, arrived in the Middle East early on Thursday morning, and then began the return trip home. They flew a roughly 36-hour mission, travelling across the Atlantic Ocean and Europe, then over the Arabian Peninsula and down the Persian Gulf, making a wide loop near Qatar and staying a safe distance from Iran’s coastline, said the military official.
The flight was coordinated with US allies in the region, and aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar flew with the bombers as they travelled through the airspace, according to the official.
A senior defence official said the bombers did not drop any munitions of any type during the flight.
The Pentagon announced last month that the US will reduce troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, asserting that the decision fulfils Trump’s pledge to bring forces home from America’s long wars. Under the accelerated pullout, the US will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from more than 4500 to 2500 and in Iraq from about 3000 to 2500.