The USA is sending more fighter aircraft to the Middle East, following the attempted seizure of two merchant vessels by Iran in the Persian Gulf region.

The Pentagon said on 17 July that US defense secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the deployment of an unspecified number of Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters and fourth-generation Lockheed F-16 multi-role fighters in response to the recent actions by Tehran’s naval forces.

F-35 hill afb middle east deployment

Source: US Air Force

US Air Force F-35As prepare to deploy to the Middle East from Hill AFB in Utah, in May 2020. Washington is increasing fighter assets in the region, including fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s, in response to activity by Russia and Iran

On 5 July, according to the Pentagon, Iran attempted to seize two commercial oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. One of the interdiction attempts included an Iranian naval vessel firing small arms and machine guns at one of the tanker ships.

The US Navy says both attacks were thwarted by the arrival on the scene of an American guided missile destroyer, aided by maritime patrol aircraft.

While neither of the targeted commercial ships were flagged as American, one of the two was managed by US oil giant Chevron.

The latest deployment of combat air power by Washington will serve to “defend US interests and safeguard freedom of navigation in the region”, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said on 17 July.

“The Department [of Defense] is increasing our presence and ability to monitor the Strait [of Hormuz] and surrounding waters,” Singh adds, calling on Iran to cease the recent activity.

The latest deployment comes just weeks after Washington announced it was sending fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-22 air superiority fighters to the Middle East in response to recent Russian provocations.

That mobilisation was prompted by what the Pentagon described as “unsafe and unprofessional behaviour” by Russian military pilots over Syria, where the air forces of both Moscow and Washington are currently operating.

Just two weeks later, a Russian Sukhoi Su-35 aggressively intercepted a US Air Force (USAF) General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle over Syria, drawing condemnation from the USA.

The advanced fighter aircraft now join an ageing but battle-tested USAF platform in frontline Middle East service: the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack jet.

The Pentagon in March announced it was sending the venerable, but increasingly obsolete A-10s to the Middle East on the deterrence mission, in an effort to free up squadrons flying the more advanced F-35 and F-22 for operations in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

On 11 July, US Central Command (CENTCOM) – which oversees US military operations in the Middle East – tweeted a video of an A-10 firing its 30mm main cannon at a practice target floating in the Gulf of Oman.

“The US Navy and air force are operating jointly in and near the Strait of Hormuz to deter malign activity and protect vital waterways,” CENTCOM says.