A Marine Corps expeditionary unit, which abruptly ended pre-scheduled training in Kuwait last week, is en route "to the waters off of Israel," a defense official familiar with planning told Military.com on Monday.
Its movement comes as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered additional military capabilities to the region. The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, is capable of conducting amphibious operations and crisis response, among other missions, the official said.
It was unclear what operations the MEU could be tasked with as it was on its way to the area in response to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, which erupted earlier this month. Pentagon officials signaled that other U.S. military capabilities could soon be moved into the region as well, following the deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups to offer aid to Israel and deter any other groups or nations from entering the war.
"The 26th MEU is currently headed to the waters off of Israel," the defense official told Military.com on Monday. "Should they be ordered, they could participate in some type of operation in support of Israel."
Another defense official told Military.com on Monday that Austin "has directed additional capabilities be prepared to deploy in support of U.S. forces deterrence operations in the Middle East" but wouldn't offer more specifics ahead of a formal announcement.
The MEU is spread out across three Navy ships -- the USS Bataan, USS Mesa Verde and USS Carter Hall. Those three ships will join the USS Gerald R. Ford strike group -- itself made up of the aircraft carrier as well as four destroyers and a cruiser.
On Saturday, Austin announced that the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with its own cruiser and two destroyers, will eventually join the Ford off the Israeli coast.
The move of the 26th MEU was the latest in a series of deployments and posture adjustments announced by the Pentagon over the last several days that have bolstered the U.S. presence in the Mediterranean to a level not seen since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.
The Defense Department has been careful to avoid any suggestion that U.S. forces could engage in combat. When asked about the legal authority to do so, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Monday that it was a question for President Joe Biden and that the military's goal was "to strictly be in a position to deter."
To date, the U.S. response to the conflict has been focused on deterrence and the provision of arms and ammunition.
Last week, the 26th MEU stopped its training in Kuwait short "considering the recent events in Israel," a spokesperson told Military.com on Thursday. Military Times was first to report that the MEU had departed Kuwait due to "emerging events."
Capt. Joe Wright, a spokesperson for Marine Corps Forces Central Command, specified to Military.com that the exercise was ended as "a prudent measure to remain ready and alert," given the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
The expeditionary unit deployed to the Middle East earlier this year to deter Iran from harassing commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf, according to Wright. It is composed of more than 2,400 Marines and sailors, he said, though it is unclear how many are en route to the Mediterranean. It is also unclear when they might arrive.
The 26th MEU was redesignated as "special operations capable" in July following a nine-month pre-deployment training program, according to the unit's website; it was the first designation of a MEU as such in more than a decade.
The 26th MEU is not to be confused with Marine Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, the service's unit within Special Operations Command.
In an interview with reporters prior to its deployment this summer, the 26th MEU's commander, Col. Dennis Sampson, explained that special operators from both Naval Special Warfare or MARSOC are able to integrate into the unit and operate as one.
"They can support us, we can support them, we can work together in support of a mission," Sampson said in April.
However, the Pentagon has remained tight-lipped about the possibility of any special operations forces going beyond the advisory and intelligence-gathering roles already being conducted by a pre-existing group of special operators attached to the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
Singh told reporters Monday that "any presence of military personnel [in Israel] will be to advise and consult on hostage recovery efforts," while White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday that "the Israelis have made it very clear that they don't want foreign troops on their soil."
Singh did note that U.S. special operations forces may play an intelligence-gathering role in a potential Israeli push into Gaza.
"If Israel were to launch a ground incursion ... they would be engaging in hostage recovery -- of course we're going to be providing intelligence for them to do so," Singh said.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X @df_lawrence.