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Centcom Remains Important to National Defense Strategy, Official Says

The nations in the U.S. Central Command area of operations remain important to the National Defense Strategy and figure in the world of strategic competition, said a senior defense official speaking on background. 

A sailor mans a military weapon while aboard a ship.
Hormuz Transit
Navy Seaman Jeremiah Bridges mans a M-240 machine gun on the USS Paul Hamilton while transiting the Strait of Hormuz, Feb. 25, 2023.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Elliot Schaudt
VIRIN: 230225-N-NH257-1017C

China, Russia, Iran and threats from extremist groups remain squarely in the focus of the command. 

The United States remains the partner of choice for the nations of the region, but China and Russia are working to increase their influence and shape the strategic environment in their favor, the official said. 

The U.S. presence in the region reassures allies and partners. Still, China has huge economic interests in the Arabian Gulf getting about 50% of its oil from the region and more than 30% of the natural gas it uses. "It provides the pathway for them to get to Africa and Europe in terms of their port infrastructure and the Belt and Road Initiative," the official said. "It is an important region to them." 

The Russians also muddy the waters in the Middle East. U.S. forces are in proximity with Russian forces in Syria. The U.S. personnel are dedicated to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, while the Russians are propping up the Assad regime — a group that used chemical weapons on their own people. 

The command is working to "maintain influence while also maintaining the safety of our forces that are on the ground working toward the enduring defeat of ISIS," he said. "That's one way strategic competition plays out." 

Soldiers secure cargo in the back of a large military aircraft.
Airdrop Preps
Soldiers with the 165th Quartermaster Company prepare airdrop bundles from a C-17 onto Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, March 17, 2023. Army riggers serve as experts in packing, maintenance and repair of both personnel and cargo parachutes.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Kirby Turbak
VIRIN: 230317-F-IO516-0114

The Russians have been acting in an unprofessional and dangerous manner — especially in the air. The official said the Russian efforts to interfere with unmanned aerial vehicles engaged in actions against ISIS are concerns. "We've been fairly outspoken and released a lot of videos about Russian activity in Syria," the official said. "They continue to undertake activities which are very concerning to us. Just this morning they flew an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission over the al-Tanf garrison. They were in that space for an extended period, and it appears to us that were doing some sort of a collection mission. This is in violation of the deconfliction protocols." 

Iran and violent extremist organizations are also a threat in the region. "I would say if there's anything that's going to derail our implementation of the national defense strategy and our focus on the pacing challenge [of China], it would be [Iran and terrorism]," the official said.  

The effort in the region is to maintain the pressure on both, to ensure threats to the homeland don’t metastasize. "If we took the pressure off violent extremist organizations and … they were able to have an attack on our homeland or … a close regional partner or ally somewhere else in the world, that could force us to put a whole bunch of resources back into a counterterrorism fight," he said.  

Pressure on violent extremism is one way to do this. So is keeping pressure on Iran to deter the worst actions that country may take via their proxy and partner network across the region. It will also help deter the nation from trying to secure a nuclear weapon at some point in the future.  

On the maritime front, Iran has been testing the limits — trying to stop and detain oil tankers. "We are working closely between the maritime and air components to ensure that there's adequate air cover that there's adequate maritime surface presence in order to deter Iran from going after oil tankers," the official said. Currently, A-10s are flying over the Strait of Hormuz and over the broader Persian Gulf area. "We are starting to fly F-16s this weekend as well, to further robust that presence." 

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