By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first of a new class of U.S. coastal warships will be sent to Singapore next spring for a roughly 10-month deployment, the Navy said on Wednesday, spotlighting a move that may stir China's fears of U.S. involvement in South China Sea disputes.
Deployment of the shallow-draft ship "Freedom" will help refine crew rotations, logistics and maintenance processes to maximize the class's value to U.S. combat commanders, Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, the Navy's director of surface warfare, told reporters.
"We'll be deploying the ship for about 10 months in the spring of next year" to Singapore, he said in a teleconference. "In the meantime, we're prepping her for success in the execution of that deployment."
Singapore is strategically located along the Strait of Malacca, the chief link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through which flows about 40 percent of world trade.
The government has discussed hosting up to four such U.S. "Littoral Combat Ships," or LCS, on a rotational basis at its naval facilities. Both countries have said the deployment stops short of a basing agreement.
It signals Washington's "commitment to the region and enhances its ability to train and engage with regional partners," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his Singapore counterpart, Ng Eng Hem, said in a joint statement last month after meeting at the Pentagon.
President Barack Obama last year ordered stepped-up emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region in a "rebalancing" of U.S. national security planning after a decade of land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Included in the so-called pivot to the Pacific would be the LCS stationing in Singapore, a rotational U.S. Marine Corps presence in northern Australia and new areas for military cooperation with the Philippines.
China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan across the South China Sea, each searching for gas and oil while building their navies and in some cases, their military alliances.
China's military warned the United States last month that U.S.-Philippine military exercises had raised the risk of armed clashes over contested waters amid a standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels in a different part of the South China Sea.
Littoral combat ships are an entirely new breed of warship. Capable of speeds greater than 40 knots, they are designed for modular, "plug-and-fight" missions for mine-clearing, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.
Manned by as few as 40 core crew members, the Freedom will require a relatively small footprint in Singapore for maintenance, Rear Admiral Jim Murdoch, the program executive officer, said in the teleconference.
"A much smaller" U.S. group than 40 would be permanently deployed to the city-state, including U.S. naval and contractor personnel, he said. In addition, teams would have to come in and out when the ship is docked in Singapore for routine scheduled maintenance.
Talks on details of arrangements between the Pearl Harbor, Hawaii-headquartered U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Singaporean authorities were continuing, Murdoch said.
There are two different LCS designs. One, including the Freedom, was developed by an industry team led by Lockheed Martin Corp. The other is built by a team led by General Dynamics Corp. The Navy wants to buy as many as 55 such ships. Twelve have been funded so far, six of each type.
The Freedom has been dogged by hull cracks and engine problems, but the admirals voiced confidence that kinks would be ironed out in time for the Singapore deployment.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)