File photo released by the US Navy showing the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, front, and the landing ship USS Carter Hall in the Red Sea in August 2023.
CNN  — 

A US Marine rapid response force is headed to the waters off the coast of Israel and the Pentagon is preparing American troops for a potential deployment to the country, escalating the US’ show of force in the region as it works to prevent the conflict between Israel and Hamas from widening any further.

Two defense officials familiar with the planning said the rapid response force, consisting of 2,000 Marines and sailors, is being sent. It will join a growing number of US warships and forces converging on Israel as the US seeks to send a message of deterrence to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

On Sunday evening, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered that roughly 2,000 troops prepare for a potential deployment to Israel to help with tasks like medical and logistical support, multiple defense officials said.

Taken together, the moves are aimed at forestalling a wider regional war, officials said. But they also risk deepening the US’ involvement in a conflict in which the Biden administration is trying to avoid direct military action.

Officials have stressed that the US has no plans to put American boots on the ground to fight in the war between Israel and Hamas, which Israeli officials have warned could be prolonged and difficult.

But the planning and movements offer a window into the kind of assistance the US might provide, including managing logistics away from the front lines and offering medical support. That could be particularly valuable if Israel launches a ground invasion of Gaza, which could be complicated and bloody, experts have warned.

The decisions also come as the US military has been steadily bolstering its presence in Middle East, including deploying a second aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean Sea to join the USS Ford strike carrier group there, and sending Air Force fighter jets to the region.

Troops preparing

The Pentagon has been deliberately cautious about how it discusses any potential deployment of US troops to Israel, officials said, because the Biden administration does not want to give the impression that American troops could become embroiled in a hot war.

But there are preparations underway for a range of contingencies should things devolve further.

The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which specializes in tasks such as amphibious operations, crisis response, humanitarian assistance, and certain special operations, had been stationed near Kuwait in recent weeks as part of a scheduled exercise there. But it departed early “as a result of emerging events,” Capt. Angelica White, a spokeswoman for the unit, told the Marine Corps Times on Wednesday.

CNN previously reported that the unit was preparing for a possible move toward Israel.

Officials would not specify where exactly the Marine unit will now go, other than to say it is headed toward Israel. One official said it will head for the southern coast of Israel, which would put US forces near the country’s two coastlines. The unit is on board the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship which is currently in the Gulf of Oman, officials said. The USS Carter Hall, a dock landing ship that is operating with the USS Bataan, is also sailing toward Israel.

The USS Bataan and the 26th MEU have been operating in the Middle East since August as part of an effort to deter Iranian aggression in the critical waterways around of the region, including the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz.

Austin’s order to prepare troops for a possible deployment, meanwhile, does not mean they will definitely deploy, or that any will serve in a combat role if they do go to Israel, officials said. But the secretary’s decision has shortened the time the identified troops will have to prepare for the mission if they are ordered to go, officials said.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report about the potential deployment of troops to Israel. Asked about the possible movement, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said on Monday, “I don’t have more to provide at this time. I might be able to give you more details later, but at this time I just don’t have anything more specific to add to.”

If the decision is made to deploy the troops to Israel in a support role, retired Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks, a military analyst for CNN, said it would likely include several elements to best assist Israeli forces. Part of the deployment would likely be a command-and-control element for material management to help with supplies, such as food, fuel, construction materials and more. It would also likely entail a joint munitions unit to help with the flow of ammunition, as well as a liaison capability from the Defense Logistics Agency that can help the Israeli military with weapons purchases and other critical moves.

This story has been updated with additional details.