WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is sending an aircraft carrier to the Middle East several months early to make sure at least two carriers will constantly be present in the troubled region.
There are two carriers in the area now, but one was scheduled to leave before its replacement arrived to fill that gap, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has approved sending by late summer the USS John C. Stennis strike group, which also includes the Aegis guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay and some 5,500 sailors.
The extra presence was approved late last week on a request by Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, Pentagon press Secretary George Little said Monday.
Questioned about whether the deployment is a response to problems with Iran or perhaps the violence in Syria, he declined to be specific. Little said the need comes from a "wide range of security issues" in the region.
"This is not about any one particular country or any one particular threat," he said.
The USS John C..Stennis will have to accelerate its training and re-equipping of the ship, because it just left the area in December.
After that last deployment, Iran's army chief Gen. Ataollah Salehi in January warned the U.S. warship not to return to the Gulf, but its replacement, the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, entered the Gulf without incident later in January.
Although U.S. warships have had a presence in the region for decades, the deployment schedule change comes during an escalating showdown between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
The Pentagon also recently doubled the number of minesweepers in the region, giving the U.S. greater flexibility to counter any Iranian effort to mine the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
The strait is routinely patrolled by Iranian and U.S. warships. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the strategic waterway, which is the transit route for about a fifth of the world's oil supply, in retaliation for increased Western-led sanctions.
Another ship, the USS Ponce, has also been sent. The amphibious transport dock was recently retrofitted to become what is known as an afloat forward staging base.