Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said on Wednesday that fears of a wider regional war in the Middle East would probably subside once Israel transitioned its military mission in Gaza to lower-intensity combat operations.
Asked whether a decision by Israel to shift from high-intensity operations to more targeted, intelligence-driven missions, as the Biden administration has repeatedly urged in recent days, could reduce the risk of broader conflict with Iran and its regional proxies, Mr. Austin indicated that it would help.
“If that happens, when that happens,” Mr. Austin said, “it’s logical that we would see some of that, you would see some reduction in activity.”
Mr. Austin did not elaborate on his comments, which were made in response to questions from reporters traveling with him aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford. But other senior administration officials have said privately that the rising death toll in Gaza — now about 20,000 people, according to health officials there — is fueling the momentum of Iranian proxy attacks against Israel and its allies.
President Biden also said last week that Israel was losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza.
The secretary’s remarks underscored the administration’s effort to confine the war between Israel and Hamas to Gaza, and keep it from spilling over into a broader regional conflict.
On Oct. 8, the day after the Hamas-led attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people, Mr. Biden ordered the carrier to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, off the Israeli coast, in an effort to deter Iran and its proxies in the region from widening the war.
So far, that deterrence has held, but just barely.
Israel and Hezbollah have increasingly traded fire along Israel’s northern border, threatening to open a second front in the war. Iran-backed militias have carried out more than 100 attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, injuring nearly six dozen soldiers. And Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have fired more than 100 missiles and drones at ships in the Red Sea, prompting the Pentagon this week to create a new naval task force to confront the threat.
“Certainly, we are concerned about the conflict, the crisis spreading to the wider region, but to date I think we’ve done a really good job of preventing that from happening, and we’ll stay focused on that,” Mr. Austin told reporters after meeting with sailors in the ship’s cavernous hangar bay.
Mr. Austin wrapped up a four-day trip to the Middle East this week with a 90-minute stop aboard the Ford, the newest and most technologically advanced carrier in the U.S. fleet.
The carrier’s six-month tour — a momentous maiden operational deployment — has already been extended three times because of the crisis in Gaza, and it is now in its eighth month at sea. The Ford was preparing to make a port call in France before heading home when it received the orders to rush to the eastern Mediterranean. Days later, its squadrons of F/A-18 Super Hornets were within striking distance of Israel.
“We were the right ship at the right time,” Capt. Rick Burgess, the Ford’s commanding officer, said in an interview.
Since then, the Ford’s combat aircraft have flown more than routine training and presence 2,500 missions, though they have not flown any surveillance or other operational missions near Israel or Gaza, ship officials said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Austin thanked the carrier’s 4,000-member crew for spending the holiday season far from home.
“It’s hard for potential bad actors to take up the sea space here,” said Captain Burgess, a Naval Academy graduate and fighter pilot, who said no other vessels, drones or other aircraft have challenged the ship since it arrived.
Just before leaving the ship, Mr. Austin watched two Super Hornets roar off the flight deck, one after the other, hurled into the skies by a new electromagnetic launching technology on the Ford that replaced the steam-powered catapults used on all other Navy carriers for decades.
The flight deck is the bustling hub of this nuclear-powered behemoth. Sailors in light helmets and goggles, mostly in their early 20s, scurry about in vests and long-sleeve shirts color-coded to their jobs — red shirts handle bombs, purple shirts handle fuel, yellow shirts handle the flights.
A second carrier, the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower, recently moved to the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, from the Persian Gulf in case it is needed to respond to the Houthi rebels’ recent spate of missile and drone attacks on commercial ships.
Back ashore on Wednesday, Mr. Austin visited with members of the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers, at a base in Cyprus. Five members of the unit died in a helicopter crash in the eastern Mediterranean Sea last month.
The soldiers were crew members of an MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that was on a refueling training mission when the aircraft crashed off the coast of Cyprus, the Pentagon said. The crash is under investigation.
The Pentagon has quietly dispatched commando teams from the Joint Special Operations Command, including the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, to Cyprus to stand by in case they are needed to help evacuate American citizens from the region.