Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States will escort American-flagged ships facing threats from Iran “to the degree that the risk demands it,” but noted that such protection may not involve U.S. military vessels trailing each ship.
Esper made the comments to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, a day after the Senate confirmed him in a 90-8 vote to become President Donald Trump’s next defense secretary. Esper, a former Army officer, Capitol Hill staff member and defense lobbyist, said he will soon travel to U.S. Central Command, which oversees the U.S. military in the Middle East, to discuss the measures to protect American-flagged ships from Iranian action in and around the Strait of Hormuz.
“The Brits are escorting their ships,” he said. “We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it. I assume that other countries will escort their ships.”
He said such escorts would be designed to prevent American-flagged ships from being attacked or seized by Iran and could take myriad forms.
“In some cases, that may be strictly an overhead capability. It may mean that there is a U.S. naval warship within proximity to deter it,” Esper said. “I don’t necessarily mean every U.S.-flagged ship going through the strait has a destroyer right behind it.”
The United States and its allies are working on initiatives to respond to recent provocations by Iran near the Persian Gulf. U.S. officials have accused Iran of conducting limpet mine attacks on foreign-flagged tankers, downing an American reconnaissance drone and most recently seizing a British-flagged tanker and its crew.
Last Friday, U.S. Central Command announced that it is developing a multinational maritime effort, known as Operation Sentinel, to increase surveillance and security in waterways in the region. Central Command said the framework would enable nations to escort their flagged vessels while taking advantage of cooperation and capabilities provided by participating nations.
But British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday said that Britain instead would be launching a European-led force and would later discuss the best way to complement U.S. proposals.
By charting their own initiative, European officials are looking to avoid getting dragged into a growing confrontation between the United States and Iran. A U.S.-led maritime effort could be seen by Iran as an escalation in support of the United States’s intent to pressure Iran; a European-led force, meanwhile, could be seen as a less political initiative to ensure freedom of navigation.