By Barbara Starr
Senior U.S. military officials are considering increasing the American military presence in the Mediterranean because of what they see as growing instability in recent months, CNN has learned.
"This is post-Benghazi," one military official told CNN. "We're looking at instability in Libya, Egypt, Syria and now Israel and Gaza."
The official who has direct knowledge of the discussions declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The Pentagon is looking at a number of options, according to military officials. The easiest would be to extend deployments of Navy ships passing through the region.
The Navy just extended by at least 10 days the tour of three amphibious ships carrying more than 2,000 Marines, Harrier jets, V-22 tilt rotor aircraft and a variety of helicopters, as CNN first reported last week.
Those tours were extended as a result of the conflict in Gaza as a precautionary measure should there have been a need to evacuate Americans from Israel. A cease-fire was reached on Wednesday after a week of violence.
The Pentagon is focusing on the eastern Mediterranean, where the ships will stay, the military official told CNN.
"From there, you can get to a lot of places in a short period of time," he said. "What we are looking at is what is our presence in the region and what should it be."
The Navy also previously announced that four warships capable of providing ballistic missile defense will now be based at Rota, Spain, putting them closer to potential threats from Syria and Iran. They are the USS Ross, the USS Donald Cook, the USS Carney and the USS Porter. Four other ships are stationed off the coast of Israel as a hedge against any ballistic missile launch from Iran.
Short of being ordered into combat, the Navy is looking to beef up its presence in order to conduct humanitarian assistance missions and training exercises with other nations in the region, the sources said.
But clearly more ships and aircraft also give the military an increased capability to evacuate Americans from a hotspot or put forces on the ground to conduct security operations to protect embassies.
The developments come amid increasing concern about weapons being smuggled into Gaza. U.S. and Israeli officials say some of those weapons are coming from Libya where arms stashes have been ransacked after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
A U.S. official told CNN that the current assessment by the intelligence community is that surface to air missiles from Libya have made their way into Gaza after being smuggled through Egypt.