This report has been updated to include comments from U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration could substantially boost the U.S. troop presence in the Middle East to counter Iran, a top Pentagon official said Thursday amid multiple reports the Pentagon is weighing plans to deploy thousands of troops to the region.
But Friday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper shot down a Wall Street Journal report that said the Pentagon is considering sending as many as 14,000 troops to U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. Esper’s statement was the most direct to come from the Department of Defense after officials there spent two days trying to knock down the story, particularly the idea such a sizable troop increase is likely.
“As the Department has stated repeatedly, we were never discussing or considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East," Esper said in a statement emailed to reporters Friday. "Reports of this are flat out wrong. DOD will always stand ready to respond to future actions by our adversaries if and when they arise, but the Pentagon is not considering sending 14,000 troops to CENTCOM. This report is false.”
Esper’s statement followed a tweet from President Donald Trump late Wednesday that, “The story today that we are sending 12,000 troops to Saudi Arabia is false or, to put it more accurately, Fake News!”
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood initially characterized a Wall Street Journal report as “erroneous,” saying no decision to deploy 14,000 troops had been made. However, Rood’s statements, because of how they were phrased, did little to end the confusion.
When Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pressed him about whether new deployments were under consideration, as the newspaper had actually reported, Rood left open the possibility of “dynamic adjustments to our posture” to deter Iran, under Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“We are evaluating the threat situation, and the secretary, if he chooses to, can make decisions to deploy additional forces based on what he’s observing there,” Rood said. “Based on what we’re seeing with our concerns with the threat picture, it is possible we would need to adjust our force posture.
“Our objective is to deter Iranian aggression, and deterrence is not static. It’s a very dynamic activity.”
Rood’s mischaracterization of it followed a similar characterization from Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah in a tweet on Wednesday: “The U.S. is not sending 14,000 troops to the Middle East to confront Iran.”
Later Thursday, Farah issued a clarifying statement that said Esper “reaffirmed" to SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., "that we are not considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East at this time.” CNN subsequently reported the most realistic options include potentially sending 4,000 to 7,000 additional US troops to the region, though such action might start with as few as 3,000.
Since the spring, the Pentagon has beefed up its military strength in the region, adding about 14,000 troops, ships, aircraft and other assets in response to what officials said is a growing threat from Iran.
Most recently, a Navy warship seized a “significant cache” of suspected Iranian guided missile parts headed to rebels in Yemen, U.S. officials said Wednesday, marking the latest turn in monthslong regional tensions. Also Wednesday, CNN reported that U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon in recent weeks have tracked the movement of a number of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq.
Thursday’s hearing focused bipartisan pressure on the Pentagon to better address Russia and China, as directed under the 2018 National Defense Strategy, even as U.S. engagements in the Middle East have dominated headlines and Washington’s attention.
Rood touted the armed services’ decisions to phase out older systems like F/A-18 "C" and "D" models as well as Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, amid the Pentagon’s new investments in hypersonic weapons, directed energy, artificial intelligence and Arctic icebreakers. However, he was dogged by questions over the reported deployment deliberations.
“With respect to the Journal article, as mentioned: We’re watching this situation where the Iranians both have conducted attacks in recent months, and we’re concerned about the threat stream that we’re seeing,” Rood told Blackburn, adding that officials are set to brief the committee in a closed session next week on the topic.
As Blackburn ― who represents the home of the 101st Airborne Infantry Division out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky ― pressed Rood to say where forces going to the Mideast could come from, Rood noted that half of the 14,000 in the region already have included shipborne troops and, recently, added fighter and bomber aircraft squadrons.
Hawley, in a tense exchange with Rood, argued that Rood’s confirmation to Blackburn — that the Pentagon is considering additional troops — had contradicted Farah, the Defense Department spokeswoman.
Hawley called for a public statement from Esper to clarify the matter. “The Pentagon has now made multiple contradictory public statements. Can we do that? Can we get that done today?” Hawley said.
Rood argued that he hadn’t been contradictory and suggested there have only been routine deliberations at the Pentagon on the number of forces in the Mideast.
“There isn’t some pending document with the secretary of defense that states: ‘Deploy 14,000 troops. Do you approve? Yes or no,’” Rood said. “I’m not trying to be argumentative, sir. I’m just trying to point out there’s a dynamic security situation in the Middle East, and it’s a custom that we do — and we didn’t do it just because of recent events — where we regularly evaluate the appropriate number of forces.”
Hawley ended with some skepticism of the administration’s aim of stabilizing the Mideast: “If our aim is the absence of conflict in the region, we’re going to be sending a lot more than [14,000] or [28,000] or 100,000 ground troops."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.