U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected Thursday to approve moving the only aircraft carrier based in the Asia-Pacific region to the Middle East, two defense officials told VOA.
The rare movement of the USS Ronald Reagan, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan, and usually deploys around the Pacific, would support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, according to the officials.
The deployment of the USS Ronald Reagan will likely mean the U.S. won't have an aircraft carrier based in the region, at least for part of the carrier's deployment. But Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group, which is hosting hundreds of U.S. Marines and 10 of the Marine Corps’ F-35 fighter jets, is currently en route to the Pacific region.
According to USNI News, this will be the first time the Japan-based strike group and air wing will operate in the Middle East since 2003, when the USS Kitty Hawk, now a decommissioned carrier, deployed to the Persian Gulf to provide air support for the war in Iraq.
The Pentagon has frequently said it is placing greater focus on the Indo-Pacific region in accordance with the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which made near-peer competition with China and Russia its top priority.
Need for air support
But President Joe Biden's announcement in April that the U.S. would pull its troops out of Afghanistan by September 11 has increased the need for a continued carrier presence in the Middle East to provide additional air support.
The USS Ronald Reagan will relieve the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which has been deployed for more than three months. Officials would not confirm how long the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower would remain in the region after its replacement's arrival.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby declined to confirm the deployment, saying the Pentagon does not talk about ship movements in advance.
“The only thing I would add is … the secretary wants to make sure that General (Austin “Scott”) Miller has the right options at his disposal to make sure that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is done in a safe, orderly and deliberate way,” Kirby said.
Last week, the Navy announced that the USS Ronald Reagan had left Japan for a deployment "in the Indo-Pacific region."
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the carrier's rare move.