Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III tours the flight deck of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) with Ford Commanding Officer Capt. Rick Burgess.

Facing a growing list of attacks against U.S. forces in the Middle East, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown was pressed at a recent conference on why the American military wasn't responding more aggressively.

Two decades of war in the region, a war that much of the American public is eager to move on from, have made military leaders cautious when talking about battlefields that have claimed thousands of service members' lives.

"We're being very thoughtful about the approach we take, and I do that when I provide my advice on how best to respond but also not to broaden the conflict," Brown said on stage at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the beginning of the month.

Read Next: What Does the Space Force Do? 4 Years After Its Birth, Glimpses of the Service's Mission Emerge[1]

A day later, the list grew, with Iran-backed Houthi rebels launching one of their biggest drone attacks[2] on commercial ships in the Red Sea, prompting the destroyer USS Carney to shoot down multiple drones.

That same day, U.S. forces in Iraq killed five Iran-linked militants[3] in a drone strike intended to prevent an imminent attack on American troops.

Since then, U.S. forces have faced dozens more attacks in Iraq and Syria, with the total topping 100 and at least 66 American troops suffering injuries. U.S. warships have also been called upon several more times[4] to respond to continued Houthi attacks on commercial ships, and American military involvement in protecting commercial shipping is poised to grow with the announcement of a new multinational task force to patrol the Red Sea[5], an escalation as the year draws to a close.

Despite efforts to avoid a larger war and as the U.S. watches close ally Israel's ground campaign in Gaza continue, the American military by all appearances is, yet again, getting pulled deeper and deeper into the Middle East.

Taken as a whole, events since October demonstrate that, as much as the country has sought to extract itself from the Middle East in recent years, the region is not done with the United States, and 2024 is likely to see U.S. forces still confronting threats and facing the risk of casualties.

"The fact that there are several frozen conflicts in the region that have been unresolved, neither militarily nor politically, certainly creates an enabling environment for various cycles of violence to keep repeating themselves," said Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. "Everyone looks to the West for leadership in resolving these conflicts because that responsibility comes with the power the United States yields, both politically and militarily."

Further, the danger of a broader, conventional Middle East war still looms.

"It's sheer good luck that we have not lost any Americans in this growing number of attacks," said Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "This is far from over, and I think, unfortunately, we have not yet seen what the full scope of escalation looks like."

The start of the Biden administration saw a concerted effort to turn the page on America's so-called endless wars in the Middle East and South Asia, and in turn focus more on the Indo-Pacific region and America's strategic adversary of China.

Last year, a new National Defense Strategy named China as the United States' top "pacing challenge" while placing the threats that had consumed U.S. attention in the beginning of the 21st century, including terrorism and the Middle East, on a lower tier.

President Joe Biden withdrew the last remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite warnings that came to fruition that doing so would lead to the Afghan government's collapse.

And while the administration left untouched about 2,500 troops in Iraq and about 900 troops in Syria to keep any remnants of the ISIS terrorist group at bay, Biden made a high-profile announcement in 2021 that the combat mission in Iraq was over, and officials rarely drew attention to U.S. military activities in Iraq and Syria.

Then Oct. 7 happened.

Hamas terrorists snuck across the border from the Gaza Strip to Israel, slaughtering about 1,200 people and abducting about 250 others in the bloodiest day in Israel's history. Americans were among both the dead and the hostages. The Israeli government responded by launching a war on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that has included a blistering airstrike campaign and ground invasion.

Iranian proxy forces in the region have taken advantage of the chaos by launching a flurry of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Israel and Hezbollah have also regularly been trading fire across the Israel-Lebanon border since Oct. 7.

The United States responded by rushing forces into the region in what officials described as an effort to deter a wider Middle East war. Two aircraft carriers and their associated strike groups steamed into the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and air defenses were bolstered throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, among other elements of the buildup.

Defense officials have stressed that no assets are being taken from the Indo-Pacific region to help the buildup in the Middle East. They also argue that they remain focused on China despite Gaza, as well as the war in Ukraine before that, consuming the most immediate attention.

"We've not lost any readiness," Gen. Charles Flynn, commanding general of U.S. Army[6] Pacific, said at the Reagan forum when asked how competing priorities for weapons, particularly for the war in Ukraine, could affect his forces. "There's a lot of ways to weight your effort, and it's not just steel coming off of a production line."

Still, public attention has undeniably shifted recently, as has many U.S. leaders' rhetoric.

The Reagan National Defense Survey, released annually ahead of the conference, found the Middle East jumped as a priority for Americans in the last year. While 11% of respondents said in 2022 that the U.S. military should focus its forces in the Middle East, 31% said so this year. This year's iteration of the poll was taken weeks after the Hamas attack.

By comparison, 25% of respondents this year said the U.S. military should focus on East Asia, including China, compared to 31% last year.

When given free range to decide how to allocate U.S. military resources, poll respondents split forces fairly evenly between the Middle East and Asia. On average, respondents said about 19% of U.S. military resources should be focused on the Middle East and about 18% should be focused on East Asia.

Still, 51% said they believe China is the greatest threat to the United States, with the country retaining its perch atop the list from last year.

"It depends on what the leaders are talking about, that's what Americans are going to focus on," Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said on a panel at the Reagan forum about the poll results.

While the annual confab of military officials, lawmakers and defense contractors did not officially include any panels on the Middle East or the war in Israel, talk about the conflict permeated discussions at the Reagan Library.

During his speech at the conference, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke almost twice as long about Israel and the Middle East as he did about America's supposed priority theater of the Indo-Pacific.

"As we are working to stabilize the region, Iran is raising tensions," Austin said in his speech. "After attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria, our forces repeatedly struck facilities in Iraq and eastern Syria used by Iran's IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and by militias affiliated with Iran. We will not tolerate attacks on American personnel. These attacks must stop. And until they do, we will do what we need to do to protect our troops -- and to impose costs on those who attack them."

Even with the tit-for-tat between U.S. forces and Iran-backed militias in the region, warnings at the beginning of the war in Israel that it could escalate into an all-out war in the Middle East haven't borne out. But regional experts say the skirmishes in Iraq and Syria, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and the violence on the Israel-Lebanon border all still risk spiraling into a more conventional war that would further entangle the United States.

"Nobody wants this to escalate further because they understand how high the risks are for contagion," said the Wilson Center's Khurma, who said she's spoken to regional diplomats who have open channels of communication with Iran. "It is very delicate. The risks remain high."

Related: 5 Purple Hearts Awarded to Injured Troops After Spike in Attacks on Bases in Iraq, Syria[7]

© Copyright 2023 All rights reserved. This article may not be republished, rebroadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without written permission. To reprint or license this article or any content from, please submit your request here[8].

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US Russia Ukraine War Brown

WASHINGTON -- Gen. CQ Brown[1], chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Chinese counterpart on Thursday, in the first of what officials said will be renewed talks between the two nations' senior military leaders, as the Biden administration works to thaw relations with Beijing.

The video call between Brown and Gen. Liu Zhenli is the first senior military communications between the U.S. and China since August 2022, when Beijing suspended all such contacts after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan[2]. It comes on the heels of similar conversations between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats, all triggered by the meeting last month between U.S. President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping[3].

Biden's meeting with Xi, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, was aimed in part at restoring the military talks amid escalating concerns about frequent unsafe or unprofessional incidents[4] between the two nations' ships and aircraft in the Pacific region.

Brown and Liu "discussed the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication," said Navy[5] Capt. Jereal Dorsey, Brown's spokesman, in a statement.

The U.S. has consistently viewed military communications with China as critical to avoiding any missteps between their armed forces[6] and to maintaining a peaceful Indo-Pacific region.

Brown's call is the first Cabinet-level communication with China since Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Dec. 6 with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

While few other details about Brown's call were released, a senior U.S. defense official and a senior military official said it was an important first step. These are the kinds of discussions that the U.S. needs to have with China, they said, in order to avoid misunderstandings or miscalculations as the two militaries interact. The two officials spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to provide information before the call.

They said the U.S. is talking with China at various levels to work out a series of calls and meetings in the coming weeks and months. They include plans to hold the bilateral Defense Policy Coordination Talks early next year and the possible resumption of the China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement talks in the spring.

During the call Brown reaffirmed the importance of holding the policy and maritime talks as well as opening the lines of communication with top Pacific commanders from the two countries, Dorsey said in his statement.

In August 2022, Beijing suspended all military contacts with the U.S. when Pelosi became the highest-ranking American lawmaker to visit Taiwan since 1997, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich traveled there. Her visit sparked a surge[7] in military maneuvers[8] by China. Beijing dispatched warships and aircraft across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, claiming the de facto boundary did not exist, fired missiles[9] over Taiwan itself, and challenged established norms by firing missiles into Japan's exclusive economic zone.

There also has been an increase in what the Pentagon calls risky Chinese aircraft and warship incidents. The Defense Department in October released video footage of some of the more than 180 intercepts[10] of U.S. warplanes by Chinese aircraft that have occurred in the past two years -- more than the total number over the previous decade. In one of the more recent incidents, a Chinese pilot flew within 10 feet (3 meters) of a U.S. Air Force[11] B-52[12], which was conducting routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace.

While officials touted the Brown-Liu call as an important initial move, the Pentagon has continued to express concerns about China's aggressive military interactions in the Indo-Pacific and has worked to build alliances with other nations in the region.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with defense chiefs from Australia and the United Kingdom to forge a new agreement to increase technology cooperation and information sharing, as part of a broader effort to counter China's rapidly growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The new technology agreement is the next step in widening military cooperation with Australia that includes plans to help equip Sydney with a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines. And the defense leaders pointed to efforts by China to restrict freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific as a reason to bolster their cooperation.

Also, earlier this week, Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, expressed concerns about the increased joint military actions by China and Russia in the region. Speaking in Tokyo, he said it is far beyond a "marriage of convenience" between Beijing and Moscow, and he urged China to stop escalating maritime confrontations with its neighbors.

China's defense ministry, meanwhile, has criticized the U.S. for interfering in both Taiwan and the South China Sea, charging that American arms sales to Taiwan are making the situation more dangerous.

© Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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A mess hall worker serves Marines at Camp Hansen, Okinawa

In its first update on efforts to address food insecurity[1] among active-duty troops, the Pentagon said it's taking steps to make on-base food options more usable and attractive, but officials also noted that the department is just starting to gather the data it needs to learn how to fully root out the problem of some troops not getting enough to eat or worrying where their next meal might come from.

In addition to the pay[2] increases and new allowances that have been passed by Congress this year -- measures that are expected to help service members with families -- a senior defense department official told making food easier to get on base is "something the services are leaned into very heavily."

"They have been doing a lot of work trying to make sure that the way service members, the single service members, who live on the installations, in the barracks, have access to food," the official said in an interview Wednesday.

Read Next: What Does the Space Force Do? 4 Years After Its Birth, Glimpses of the Service's Mission Emerge[3]

For years, the issue of troops struggling to put food on the table has been a topic of study and[4] conversation[5] among military support organizations and advocacy groups, but the Pentagon had avoided taking major action to address the issue until recent years. Service members told in past reports[6] that they saw leaders as part of the problem rather than a solution.

But as COVID-19 made food insecurity worse for troops, it also brought a growing amount of attention[7] and effort -- largely from Congress[8] -- to combat the issue.

One study[9], conducted at an unnamed Army[10] base by Army Public Health Center, found that, out of a sample of nearly 5,000 soldiers, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the percentage of food-insecure troops to almost double from 16% to 31%.

A 2020 DoD survey showed[11] that 24% of active-duty service members experienced food insecurity at some point in 2019. Since then, those numbers have not decreased.

The senior defense official, who was granted anonymity as a condition for discussing the report, said a 2022 survey found that low food security increased from 14% to 21% and very low food security increased from 10% to 20%.

The USDA's definitions say[12] "low food security" is when a family's lack of money leads to "reductions in dietary quality and variety," while "very low food security" is when that financial hardship leads to skipped meals or a drop in the amount of food being eaten.

The official stressed that this data doesn't show any impact of many of the several pay raises[13] enacted by Congress, as well as the creation of a "Basic Needs Allowance"[14] and an increase in housing allowances in expensive markets[15].

Many of these measures, like the Basic Needs Allowance[16] and boosted housing allowance, almost exclusively benefit troops with families -- one of two broad groups that are impacted by food insecurity.

The other group is single service members who may be able to afford the food but either struggle to find it nearby or are turned off by what is available at a dining facility and instead turn to less healthy options.

"Among single enlisted service members living on base, those who are food insecure were less likely to eat in the dining facilities than food secure members," the defense official explained, before adding the top reasons given in the survey were "not liking the food or bringing food from or eating at the residence."

This is an issue that has plagued the services for years and goes beyond troops simply being unhappy with a dining hall's offerings that day.

After one Army reservist set up a food review app[17] for military dining facilities, service members posted one-star reviews that featured pictures of moldy vents and undercooked chicken. In other cases, such as sailors aboard a ship undergoing maintenance at Virginia's Newport News Shipyard, the logistics of the location were the main issue.

Several scathing Navy[18] reports revealed that sailors faced such long commutes to and from the shipyard that they barely had time left to sleep, much less seek out proper food. Meanwhile, sailors who were housed at the one barracks on the shipyard were basically stuck in the middle of an industrial area with few options available to them.

Last month, as part of the Navy's response, Rear Adm. Christopher Gray told reporters that his "Quality of Service" team[19] was checking "sailors' access to healthy food options within 20 minutes of their homes and work."

Gray added that his team made improvements to existing shipyard facilities that included an increase to sailor bussing options and planned to make an existing, contractor-run canteen on the shipyard into a 24/7, unmanned market.

"We're also reviewing unaccompanied housing cooking policy," Gray said.

The report released Wednesday said that all the services are pursuing pilot or trial programs that seek to give service members easier access to food at any time.

The Navy's Exchange command is exploring the idea of mini-marts that have a section that stays open 24 hours a day. The first one is set to open at the Dam Neck Annex of Naval Air Station Oceana[20], Virginia, in January. The command is also upgrading Ships Stores aboard large Navy vessels to allow automated 24/7 access. The cruiser USS San Jacinto and the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower both have these upgrades now.

The Army says it will better communicate to dependents of junior enlisted that they can use the on-base dining facilities at a cheaper rate. The branch's plans to "address the disparity in access to food include the roll out of 26 Army food trucks, 11 operational kiosks, and 3 bistros that are programmed and budgeted."

The branch will also continue "to reevaluate these modernization efforts and evaluate food deserts to determine the best places to implement these capabilities."

However, officials also point to the need to learn more about the issues at play in order to better address food insecurity going forward. Several studies that include both service members and their families are underway.

Related: Military Hunger: New Study Shows 1 in 8 Military Families Turned to Food Banks During the Pandemic[21]

© Copyright 2023 All rights reserved. This article may not be republished, rebroadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without written permission. To reprint or license this article or any content from, please submit your request here[22].

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Israel Palestinians US Austin

ABOARD THE USS GERALD R. FORD -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin flew out to the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier Wednesday to meet with the sailors he has ordered to remain at sea to prevent the Israel-Hamas war[1] from spilling over into a deadlier regional conflict.

Austin was in the region to press Israel to shift its bombardment of Gaza to a more limited campaign[2] and more quickly transition to address Palestinian civilians' dire humanitarian needs.

At the same time, the U.S. has been concerned that Israel will launch a similar military operation along its northern border with Lebanon[3] to expel Hezbollah[4] militants there, potentially opening a second front and widening the war.

At a news conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, Austin didn't say whether U.S. troops might be further extended to defend Israel if its campaign expands into Lebanon, and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant seemed to tone down recent rhetoric that a northern front was imminent, deferring to diplomatic efforts first.

Still, that leaves incredible uncertainty for the Ford and its crew, which Austin ordered to the Eastern Mediterranean to be closer to Israel the day after Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7. The aircraft carrier's more than 4,000 sailors and the accompanying warships were supposed to be home in early November.

Using the public address system of the Ford, which is sailing a few hundred miles off the coast of Israel, Austin thanked the sailors and their families for giving up spending the holidays together because of the mission.

"Sometimes our greatest achievements are the bad things we stop from happening," Austin told the crew. "In a moment of huge tension in the region, you all have been the linchpin of preventing a wider regional conflict."

The defense secretary met with a group of sailors in the Ford's hangar bay to talk about the various dangers in the region that the carriers, the destroyers and cruisers deployed along with it have been watching.

He thanked them for keeping attention on cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, and later told reporters traveling with him that if Israel transitions away from major combat operations in Gaza, it could possibly ease some of the regional tension that has kept the Ford in place.

The Ford's commanding officer, Navy[5] Capt. Rick Burgess, said one of the Ford's main contributions has been to stay close enough to Israel that it can send its aircraft in to provide support, if needed. While the Ford's fighter and surveillance aircraft are not contributing to the surveillance needs of Israel's operations in Gaza, other ships in its strike group are, Burgess said.

The Ford is one of two U.S. carrier strike groups bracketing the conflict. The other, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, has recently patrolled near the Gulf of Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea waterway where so many commercial vessels have come under attack[6] in recent weeks.

Iranian-backed Houthis[7] in nearby Yemen have vowed to continue striking commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea with ballistic missiles and drones until Israel ceases its devastating bombardment of Gaza, which has now killed more than 19,000 Palestinians.

To counter the ship attacks, Austin announced a new international maritime mission Tuesday to get countries to send their warships and other assets to the southern Red Sea[8], to protect the roughly 400 commercial vessels that transit the waterway daily.

Since it left Norfolk[9] in the first week of May, the Ford's fighter aircraft and surveillance planes have conducted more than 8,000 missions. The crew, Austin noted, has been moving at full speed -- consuming more than 100,000 Monster energy drinks and 155,000 Red Bulls along the way.

© Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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