WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will move forward in considering providing escort and protection to U.S. commercial ships in the Persian Gulf region in a complementary effort to what European nations are planning, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday.
Esper, who began his first full day as the confirmed defense secretary, said it is critical to establish force protection of ships to dissuade Iran from attempting to seize more ships or initiate other provocative actions.
He noted how Iran was thwarted two weeks ago in an attempt to grab a British-flagged vessel because a British warship was able to intercede. However, Iran was successful last week because the same British warship was out of range of a commercial vessel captured by Tehran.
“The Brits are trying to escort their ships; we will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it, and I assume that other countries will escort their ships,” he told Pentagon reporters.
“In some cases that may be strictly an overhead capability; it may mean there is a U.S. Naval warship within proximity to deter it. So again I don’t necessarily mean that every U.S. flagged ship going through the strait has a destroyer right behind it,” Esper said.
The “strait” he referenced is the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf to the north and the Gulf of Oman to the south.
Pentagon officials told TMN on background that U.S. forces would operate in the two larger seas and avoid when possible the narrow waters of the strait, which is only 21 to 60 miles wide throughout its flow.
However, Esper stopped short of announcing the actual launch of Operation Sentinel, the Pentagon-conceived program to protect ships in and around the Strait of Hormuz as well as the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
Esper said he plans to travel next week to CENTCOM headquarters in Florida to finalize the details.
“As long as you’re in the area that you can react quick enough to deter a provocation, that’s the key,” Esper said. “We would want to prevent the Iranians seizing or stopping a ship, certainly for any arbitrary reason whatsoever.”
Esper said he spoke with Senate Armed Services Committee leaders about moving forward to fill other high-level positions in the Pentagon — including what he said are 14 of 59 open positions that need Senate confirmation.
“We’ve got to get stable leadership in to make sure you’ve got civilian control of the military, the right people in place leading this organization,” he said.
Esper opened his remarks to reporters by saying he will send out updated guidance on engaging the press, underscoring “the very important role of the media, the press in our society in terms of communicating what we are doing and then answering your questions.”
The Pentagon has not held a formal, on-camera briefing since May 31, 2018. Esper’s remarks Wednesday were on-the-record but off-camera, held in one of the press rooms.
On Tuesday the Senate confirmed Esper’s nomination in a 90-8 vote and he was sworn in that evening by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.