The United States will provide surveillance and organizational support to a proposed coalition to bolster maritime security against Iranian threats in the Strait of Hormuz, but U.S. ships will not escort other nations’ ships through the passage, the nation’s top uniformed officer said on Tuesday.
“Escorting in the normal course of events would be done by countries who have the same flag, so a ship that is flagged from a particular country would be escorted by that country,” Joint Chiefs chairman Joseph Dunford told reporters at Fort Myer in Washington, D.C.“The United States is uniquely capable of providing is some of the command and control, some of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; but the expectation is the actual [security] patrolling and escorts would be done by others.”
Questions have swirled for weeks around the Trump administration’s plan to rally other countries to help guard against potential attacks on oil tankers transiting through the strait. Since late June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sought to recruit allies to participate in a program called Sentinel that gives security cameras to ships transiting the strait — and was thought to include a military escort or patrol component — but details have remained sketchy.
Dunford said U.S. Central Command has only recently provided senior leaders with a plan in response to an order given “a couple weeks ago.”
On Tuesday morning, Dunford, Pompeo, and Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper met to discuss the particulars. He said they are “engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el Mandeb.”
“We have a pretty clear concept of what we want to do,” Dunford said. “[Central Command] come back to us with a pretty good concept of operations and so now we’re able to talk with some degree of specificity with our coalition partners.”
He noted that he expected the effort to be “scalable,” depending on how many partners sign up. But the U.S. portion of the effort is expected to be fusing information from various different surveillance streams, rather than participating in actual security patrolling or escorting ships.
Tensions with Iran have been on the rise since May, when the Trump administration began warning of what it described as an aggressive campaign by Iran designed to get the United States to back off its “maximum pressure” strategy. President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, reimposing choking sanctions on Tehran.
In June, Trump ordered, then canceled strikes on Iran in response to Tehran’s downing of a U.S. drone. The administration also blamed a pair of attacks on two oil tankers — neither of which were operated by the United States — on Iran.
In recent weeks, Iran has taken steps to reinstate elements of its nuclear weapons program previously limited by the deal.
It’s not clear how many nations are expected to participate in the maritime security effort. European allies, distressed by the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement have reacted with some skepticism to the Trump administration’s warnings of an increased threat from Iran. And while Gulf allies are concerned about Iranian aggression, experts question what kind of resources they will be able to devote to the effort.
“I think probably over the next couple weeks we’ll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative and then we’ll work directly with their militaries to identify the specific capabilities that would support that,” Dunford said. “We’re getting ready to move out.”