The US is deploying a large aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, the Department of Defense confirmed Thursday, cutting short leave for thousands of soldiers to send them back to the Middle East ahead of schedule.
The move comes amid growing fears of a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which analysts say could spark a wider war or the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping lane that the US has said it will use its power to keep open.
The US Navy said the USS John C. Stennis was being deployed early “to maintain combatant commander requirements for the presence in the region.” The ship was scheduled to return to the gulf only in December and had arrived stateside in March.
Sailors were told about the early deployment in July.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addressed the sailors before leaving, telling them Iranian fears and the conflict in Syria were the main concerns behind sending them early.
“I understand that it is tough,” Panetta said. “We are asking an awful lot of each of you, but frankly you are the best I have and when the world calls we have to respond.”
The head of the US Fifth Fleet, which operates in the region, told Reuters the deployment was not a buildup of forces as the USS Enterprise was scheduled to leave the region soon to be decommissioned.
During its last deployment in January, the Stennis took part in rescuing an Iranian shipping vessel from pirates in the Persian Gulf.
The rescue came days after Iranian military officials threatened to attack the nuclear-powered ship if it returned to the gulf.