American forces stationed around the globe had a busy year in 2023, deploying to numerous countries to reassure allies and continuing the decades-long fight against international terrorism.
The year kicked off with a major military drill in Israel, with U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) partnering for the largest bilateral show of force in the history of the alliance between the two countries.
The drill, dubbed Juniper Oak, was a “Combined Joint All-Domain exercise,” according to CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, an exercise that allowed the two allies to improve their “interoperability on land, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace with our partners, enhances our ability to respond to contingencies, and underscores our commitment to the Middle East.”
CENTCOM contributed about 6,400 personnel to the drill, spreading members between up to 10 Israeli bases and operating six American ships at sea. Israel deployed more than 1,000 soldiers to the drill, including another six ships and aircraft that included F-35s, F-16s, F-15s, G550 reconnaissance aircraft, Boeing 707 refueling aircraft, UAVs and helicopters.
“The exercise demonstrates the indisputable strategic partnership between Israel and the United States and is another step in building Israeli military power,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the drill. “Israel will always defend itself on its own, but of course welcomes the intensifying cooperation with our great ally.”
US forces train alongside South Korean counterparts
Israel was not the only ally to benefit from training alongside U.S. forces in 2023, a year that included multiple missions alongside South Korean partners. In April, U.S. forces partnered for joint military drills with Japan and South Korea in a show of force amid continued hostile rhetoric from North Korea.
The partner forces engaged in anti-submarine drills that were meant to counter threats made by North Korea a month earlier, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called on his country to be ready to launch a nuclear attack against the allies.
In October, Reuters reported on more drills being held between U.S. and South Korean forces, which included combat drills with drones, unmanned vehicles and wearable laser sensors that were aimed at modernizing the forces of both countries.
American soldier hops border into North Korea
But drills weren’t the only news to involve American forces out of the Korean Peninsula in 2023, which included a July incident that saw Army Pvt. Travis King detained in North Korea after he abruptly separated from his group that was touring the demilitarized zone and sprinted into North Korean territory.
King, who was returned to the U.S. by North Korea more than two months later, was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to face disciplinary action from the Army for an alleged assault on a South Korean national. But the young soldier never boarded his flight back to the United States, instead joining the tour group and making his move across the border.
The incident caused immediate fear among U.S. officials for the safety of King in North Korean custody, with Army Secretary Christine Wormuth saying that the young soldier was likely fearing consequences in the U.S. but probably had not been “thinking clearly” when he fled across the border.
“What we want to do is get that soldier back into our custody. I worry about him, frankly,” she said during a July interview with NBC News. “It makes me very, very concerned that Pvt. King is in the hands of the North Korean authorities. I worry about how they may treat him.”
King spent a total of 71 days in North Korean custody, returning to U.S. soil on Sept. 28 and receiving medical treatment at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston’s Brooke Army Medical Center.
He faces eight charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including desertion, solicitation of child pornography, assault, attempted escape from U.S. military custody and insubordination.
US troops continue to spill into Europe
American forces were also busy in Europe in 2023, with thousands of troops deploying to the continent in response to Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine. In February, President Biden ordered 3,000 additional U.S. troops to European countries neighboring Ukraine in a bid to deter any further Russian aggression and reassure allies in the region.
That move was followed by a July announcement that Biden had authorized the Pentagon to use up to 3,000 more U.S. reservists to augment the troops already stationed in Europe.
But U.S. officials have also remained steadfast that American troops will not be deploying to Ukraine in the fight against Russia, with former Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, who now serves as the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, saying that U.S. European deployments would have troops in a “defensive posture” and that they “will not fight in Ukraine.”
There are now nearly 66,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in or deployed to Europe as of December 2023, according to numbers compiled by Statista, and are unlikely to be drawn down as Russia’s war with Ukraine drags into 2024.
More forces head to the Middle East to deter Iran
The U.S. military increased its troop count in the Middle East in 2023, in large part as a result of the continued aggressive behavior of Iran in the region.
In August, the Navy announced that more than 3,000 sailors and Marines had arrived in the Middle East to supply additional support after “recent attempts by Iran to seize commercial ships in the CENTCOM area of operations.”
The move came after a CENTCOM statement in July that said more troops were needed in the region “in response to recent attempts by Iran to seize commercial ships in the CENTCOM area of operations, the Secretary of Defense has ordered the deployment of an Amphibious Readiness Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit (ARG/MEU) into the CENTCOM area of responsibility.”
“In the past two years, Iran has attacked, seized, or attempted seizure of nearly 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels in the CENTCOM area of operations,” CENTCOM added.
Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Strait of Hormuz had made the move to bolster U.S. forces necessary, Kirby added in August, noting that the area is a “vital seaway” for the flow of global goods.
“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital seaway that has a huge impact on seaborne trade around the world,” Kirby said at the time. “It’s a critical choke point in the maritime world. And we have seen threats by Iran to affect that choke point.”
Senate votes to keep American forces in Syria
Elsewhere in the Middle East, American forces were busy battling the threat of terrorism in Iraq and Syria.
In December, the Senate voted to shoot down a bill that would have required the U.S. to withdraw roughly 900 troops stationed in Syria. The bill, which was brought by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., came in response to dozens of attacks against U.S. forces in the region by Iranian proxies since October.
“It seems to me, though our 900 troops have no viable mission in Syria, that they’re sitting ducks,” Paul said at the time, according to a report from Defense News.
But the bill was defeated in an 84-13 vote, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arguing that such a move is exactly what Iran would want the U.S. to do in response to the attacks.
“Passage of such a resolution would be a gift to Iran and its terrorist network,” McConnell said. “Driving American troops from the Middle East is exactly what they’d like to see.”
Attacks on US forces in Iraq, Syria continue
Those attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have continued as 2023 draws to a close, with the Pentagon tallying more than 100 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since the start of the year.
Most recently, three U.S. service members were injured in a Christmas Day attack on Erbil Air Base in Iraq by Kataib Hezbollah terrorists.
Of the three injured service members, one was injured critically, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
Austin also announced that later that day the U.S. had “conducted necessary and proportionate strikes on three facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups in Iraq” in retaliation for the attack.
“These precision strikes are a response to a series of attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias, including an attack by Iran-affiliated Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups on Erbil Air Base earlier today, and intended to disrupt and degrade capabilities of the Iran-aligned militia groups directly responsible,” Austin said.