The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz has returned to the Middle East in case it is needed to provide air support during the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials said.
Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller has announced that the U.S. military will reduce its footprint to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and 2,500 troops in Iraq by Jan. 15.
The Defense Department ordered the Nimitz to return to the U.S. Central Command theater of operations to make sure that the U.S. military has additional defensive capabilities for any contingency, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. The aircraft carrier had been in the region earlier in the fall and was most recently in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command theater.
The Nimitz has been back in the waters off the Middle East since Nov. 25, said Navy Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman.
“There were no specific threats that triggered the return of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group,” Rebarich said in a statement. “The return of Nimitz is centered on maintaining CENTCOM’s ability to remain postured and prepared to help preserve regional stability and security.”
However, the aircraft carrier is returning to the region amid heightened tensions with Iran over the recent assassination of one of the country’s top nuclear scientists.
Even though no country has taken responsibility for the Nov. 27 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, top Iranian officials have publicly blamed Israel and vowed to retaliate for Fakhrizadeh’s death.
It is unclear what actions Iran might take, but following a U.S. airstrike in January that killed Maj. Gen. Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran launched several ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases that hosted U.S. troops.
No U.S. service members were killed but 110 troops at Al Asad Air Base were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury following the attacks, of which 29 soldiers were eventually awarded Purple Hearts.
So far, the U.S.-military-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has not made any changes to its force protection posture, a U.S. military official told Task & Purpose on Monday.