The aim of the U.S. naval and air presence in the Gulf area is to deter Iran from threatening to stop or seize any American commercial ship, Mark Esper told reporters on his first full day as Pentagon chief.
Esper, who previously served as the Army's top civilian official, was confirmed by the Senate and sworn at the White House on Tuesday, ending a seven-month absence of a confirmed defense secretary. In one of his first official acts, Esper ordered creation of a Pentagon task force to address health and other problems associated with dangerous contaminants at more than 400 military installations. He said he will take an "aggressive and holist" approach to the effects of the compounds known as PFAS, including cleanup.
Formally called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are found in firefighting foam used at military bases and are in a wide range of nonstick and stain-resistant consumer products. First made after World War II, the compounds have been called "forever chemicals" because they are expected to take hundreds or thousands of years to break up. Federal authorities say the compounds appear linked to certain cancers and other health and developmental problems.
In his remarks to reporters, Esper said addressing the Iran issue is an immediate priority. Threats to navigation in the Gulf have become an international issue in recent months as Iran has responded to increased U.S. economic sanctions that have strangled its oil exports.
Last week Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Afterward, U.S. Central Command said it began extra U.S. aerial patrols. Also last week, the U.S. Navy said it destroyed one, and possibly two, Iranian drones that had made what the Navy called threatening moves against the USS Boxer in the Strait.
Esper said he would travel next week to the Florida headquarters of Central Command, which is responsible for military operations across the Middle East, including in the Gulf region. Asked by a reporter whether the U.S. will escort commercial ships as they transit the Strait of Hormuz to or from the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman, Esper noted that the British navy already has begun providing added naval security for British vessels.
"We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it," Esper said. Pressed to elaborate, Esper said he was not announcing that the U.S. will be escorting all U.S. commercial ships in or around the Gulf.
"To the degree United States vessels need escort, we will be there, we will be available to them," he said. "I use 'escort' broadly. 'Escort' doesn't mean" a warship would be sailing "right behind" a commercial vessel.
"What I mean by it is, as I said, to the degree that circumstances warrant, that we think that maybe a U.S. ship may be under some type of threat ... (of) being stopped or being seized, then we would want to make sure we have the capacity to make sure that doesn't happen."
In some cases that may be only airborne surveillance of the ship's path, he said. Or it may mean having a Navy warship "within proximity." He added: "I don't necessarily mean that every U.S.-flagged ship going through the Strait has a destroyer right behind it."
The Trump administration is seeking to build an international coalition to monitor and potentially escort commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and other vulnerable waterways in the Middle East as a way of deterring Iranian provocations. Called "Operation Sentinel," the plan has thus far attracted few, if any, commitments from other nations.
On Monday, Britain announced plans to develop and deploy a Europe-led "maritime protection mission" to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Esper said he sees this as complementary to the approach Washington is taking.