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Defense Secretary Mark Esper meets with ​Air Force and Navy aviators during during a visit to Prince Sultan AB, in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 22, 2019. DOD photo by SSgt. Nicole Mejia.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Oct. 22 met with F-22 aircrews and other US military personnel who are deployed to Saudi Arabia as the Pentagon looks to continue building its footprint at Prince Sultan Air Base there.

The BBC reported in July the US planned to send an F-22 squadron to Saudi Arabia in the face of tensions with Iran. At Prince Sultan, Esper visited airmen from the 27th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at JB Langley-Eustis, Va., which deployed to Al Udeid AB, Qatar, over the summer.

Esper’s visit comes weeks after the Pentagon announced it is deploying two fighter squadrons, one air expeditionary wing, two Patriot batteries, and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System to Saudi Arabia. Those squadrons were expected to be comprised of F-15s, according to multiple news reports.

Speaking to reporters at the base, Esper said that while Saudi Arabia has agreed to help pay for the US presence, the deployment does not count as “mercenary” work because American troops are deployed to “help defend our allies, second, to deter Iran so we don’t have increasingly bad behavior, and third, to defend the international rules based order,” he said, according to Reuters.

“We agree with the need to take a firm defensive stance in the region to deter Iranian malign behavior and promote stability,” Esper said on Twitter following a meeting with Saudi leadership in Riyadh.