The US will deploy approximately 1,000 troops to the Middle East to defend against air, naval and ground-based threats, the acting US defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, has announced.
The increase in forces follows the latest incident in the region, when two oil tankers exploded last Thursday while transporting oil in the Gulf of Oman.
Oil tankers Front Altair, owned by Bermuda-based firm Frontline, and Kokuka Courageous, owned by Japanese firm Kokuka Sangyo, exploded while transporting oil near the Strait of Hormuz, approximately 25 miles off the port of Jask, Iran.
Frontline is investigating the incident, and said it will “exercise extreme caution” with contracts in the regions, and consider all possible measures to ensure the safety of vessels operating in the area.
The company confirmed the vessel caught fire following an explosion but remained afloat until the salvage company for both tankers, Royal Boskalis Westminster NV (Boskalis) retrieved it. The 23 crew aboard were rescued, unharmed, by the cargo ship Hyundai Dubai and transported by the Iranian navy to the port of Jask.
US Naval forces responded to individual distress calls from the two tankers. Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown at US Central Command (CENTCOM), said that USS Bainbridge was operating in the vicinity, and was able to provide immediate assistance to Kokuka Courageous, and rescue the crew.
According to Brown's report, Iranian authorities attempted to prevent US surveillance of the vessel during the attack. “A modified Iranian SA-7 surface-to-air missile attempted to shoot down a US MQ-9 over the Gulf of Oman to disrupt surveillance of the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] attack on the M/T Kokuka Courageous. The MQ-9 had arrived minutes earlier at 6:20 am local time at the motor tanker (M/T) Altair and had observed the ship on fire,” he said.
Captain Bill Urban, lead spokesman at the CENTCOM, said: “The US and our partners in the region will take all necessary measures to defend ourselves and our interests. Today's attacks are a clear threat to international freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce.”
Details of the incident remain uncertain. While the US CENTCOM reported that the Kokuka crew abandonned their ship after discovering a possible “unexploded limpet mine on their hull” after the attack, Yutaka Katada, president of Kokuka Sangyo, said that they “received reports that something flew towards the ship”.
“It seems there was a high chance they were attacked by a flying object. The impact was well above the water. I don’t think it was a torpedo.”
Thursday's incident follows recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman which were concluded by a state investigation and described as "coordinated operations".