Biden administration has only launched four ‘major responses’ to Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. forces, Austin says

The top military leaders were pressed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about U.S. responses to Iranian attacks following last week’s strikes in Syria

Jeon Heon-Kyun - Pool/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attends a press conference with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup (not pictured) at the Defense Ministry on January 31, 2023, in Seoul, South Korea.

Top military leaders revealed yesterday that U.S. forces have launched just four “major responses” to 83 attacks on U.S. forces by Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria during the Biden administration’s tenure.

Lawmakers questioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley yesterday about the U.S. strategy for responding to repeated Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. forces inside Syria; the line of questioning came in the wake of attacks last week that killed a U.S. contractor and injured other U.S. service members, prompting a retaliatory strike by the U.S. on Iran-backed forces.

“Our troops have the ability to, certainly, protect themselves and there have been responses — local responses to certain types of activity. Our troops always have the ability to do that,” Austin said. “In terms of major responses — strikes… there’s only been four of those.”

Milley said that the U.S. has also taken “proactive measures” against Iranian proxy groups “that are not necessarily on the front page of the paper.” He added that the U.S. needs to be targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “very harshly over time — and that’s exactly what we plan on doing.”

Milley added that U.S. outposts in Iraq and Syria have “we think adequate force protection in terms of rocket and missile defenses,” noting that most attempted attacks are intercepted. Air defense at the U.S. base attacked last week were reportedly not fully functional at the time of the attack.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) argued that Iranian forces have been “emboldened” by what he characterized as the U.S.’ failure to respond to their attacks — “they know that we will not retaliate until they kill an American.”

Cotton and other GOP senators also pressed the military leaders on the multi-hour delay in notifying Congress about last week’s attack, which legislators characterized as a deliberate effort by the administration to avoid a successful vote on an Iran-related amendment to the bill repealing the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq — under consideration on the same day as the attack — that would have scuttled the AUMF repeal.

“There was no connection between when we notified you, senator, and your vote,” Austin said. “[Milley] and I were testifying that morning as well, so as soon as we came out of testimony, we began working on crafting response options.”

Austin added, however, that “we should have notified you earlier… and we will do everything in our power to make sure that we improve our performance.”

Despite lawmakers’ concerns, additional Iran-related amendments to the AUMF repeal that the Senate voted on yesterday failed by sizable margins. 

An amendment that would have conditioned the AUMF repeal on a guarantee that it would not undermine the U.S.’ counter-Iran efforts failed, as did a second amendment that would have guaranteed the president authority to use force against Iranian forces. A third amendment requiring the administration to consult with Israel and other allies before the repeal took effect also failed.

The AUMF repeal is on track for a final Senate vote on Wednesday, which is expected to be successful.

Austin also addressed the slow process for U.S. foreign military sales, which the head of Central Command, Gen. Michael Kurilla, recently blamed for increasing Chinese military sales in the Middle East.

Austin placed some blame for the delays on the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said had caused delays among defense manufacturers, but added that the Defense Department is working to ensure that DoD bureaucracy is not causing further delays.

“We’re doing everything we can to identify logjams and work through those to speed things up,” Austin said. “This is something that requires consistent focus and we’re going to do that.”

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