Thursday, September 28

US shift to Asia on track despite budget cuts


WASHINGTON: Plans to expand the American naval presence in the Pacific with new ships and hi-tech weaponry will go ahead despite steep budget cuts, the US Navy chief said before a trip to the region.

Admiral Jonathan Greenert told AFP in an interview he will seek to “reassure” partners during a nine-day trip to Japan, Singapore and South Korea that mounting pressure on military spending will not derail Washington’s much-publicized shift towards Asia.

Of the Navy’s current fleet of 283 ships, 101 are deployed and 52 are in Pacific waters, with plans to increase the US presence in the region to 62 ships by 2020, he said.

“We’re going to grow. There’s no question about the next seven to eight years,” said the admiral, who departs Wednesday on his tour.

Greenert, who will meet counterparts at the IMDEX maritime security conference in Singapore, said during his talks he would outline a steadily expanding naval presence, particularly in Southeast Asia.

“I’ll talk to them on deployments and how we’re going to sustain our presence out there through this 2013-14 period,” he said.

Under automatic budget cuts, the Pentagon faces a reduction of 41 billion this fiscal year and possibly up to 500 billion over the next nine years if US lawmakers fail to break a political impasse.

Military leaders have warned that flight hours, ship maintenance and some exercises will be scaled back due to the belt tightening, even as China and other Asian powers pursue an arms buildup.

Greenert acknowledged the cuts could slow down the arrival of some new weapons, and if funding were slashed over several years, ship-building plans would suffer.

But he said there were 47 ships under construction or under contract that would not be affected by any budget slashing.

“Shipyards won’t go empty. There’s no plan to break the contracts.”

For the Pacific, he touted efforts to strengthen the Navy’s role in the region, from more joint drills to “more grey hulls” in the western Pacific.

The strategic “rebalance” is illustrated by what Greenert calls operating “forward,” with 42 of the 52 vessels patrolling the Pacific permanently stationed in regional ports.

The approach paid off amid recent tensions with North Korea, he said, when two US destroyers were ordered to the coast off the Korean peninsula.

The warships were close at hand in Japan at the naval base in Yokosuka, instead of having to travel a vast distance from America’s West coast.

“They are where it matters, when it matters,” he said.

The military also plans to send the latest cutting-edge hardware to Asia, with the first squadron of the new P-8 Poseidon aircraft to arrive in Japan later this year, he said. — AFP