The Pentagon will shift more Navy warships to the Asia-Pacific region over the next several years and by 2020, about 60 percent of the fleet will be assigned there as part of a new strategy to increase US presence in Asia, defense secretary Panetta said Saturday. Panetta assured his audience at a security conference in Singapore that US budget problems and cutbacks would not get in the way of changes. He said the Defense Department has money in the five-year budget plan to meet those goals.
His promises, however, are likely to be met with skepticism from some nations that are aware of the coming budget cuts and have watched the US send the bulk of its military might to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. The boost in ship presence could increase tensions with China, where leaders have said they are unhappy with any larger US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
A key area of dispute is the South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely as its own. But Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines also have territorial claims there.
Last year, the US military participated in 172 exercises in the region involving 24 counties.
Currently, the Navy has about 285 ships, with roughly half assigned to each coast, but that total may decline a bit as some ships are retired in the coming years and may not be replaced.
The current fleet includes 11 aircraft carriers, with six assigned to the Pacific. But those numbers are slated to go down later this year, dipping to 10 carriers, with five assigned to Pacific ports in San Diego, Washington state and Japan.
Panetta, however, said he intends to go back to having six carriers in the Pacific in the coming years.