By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy, underscoring the importance of "operating forward" amid tightening budgets and increasing threats to free seas, will station several of its new littoral combat ships in Singapore in coming years and is considering similar arrangements in the Philippines.
The Navy will increasingly focus on the strategic "maritime crossroads" of the Asia-Pacific region, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert wrote in the December issue of Proceedings, published by the U.S. Naval Institute.
The evolving strategy comes against the backdrop of mounting concerns about China's military expansion and the growing reach of its navy, as well as mounting budget pressures in the United States.
These developments are being closely watched by Lockheed Martin Corp, Australia's Austal, General Dynamics Corp and other arms makers that are building two models of the new warships for the U.S. Navy, and hope to sell them to other countries in coming years.
"Because we will probably not be able to sustain the financial and diplomatic cost of new main operating bases abroad, the fleet of 2025 will rely more on host-nation ports and other facilities where our ships, aircraft, and crews can refuel, rest, resupply, and repair while deployed," Greenert wrote in the naval magazine.
Doing this will help the Navy "sustain its global forward posture with what may be a smaller number of ships and aircraft than today," he wrote.
Greenert and other Navy officials have begun talking in greater detail about plans for stationing ships in Singapore and other places in Southeast Asia in recent months. Details about the timing of these moves is still under discussion.
The issue came up during meetings held by naval officers at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings last month, where "China was the number one issue," according to one source briefed on some of the meetings.
In the Proceedings article, Greenert said the Navy planned to "station several of our newest littoral combat ships at Singapore's naval facility," in addition to plans announced by President Barack Obama for starting rotational deployments of Marines to Darwin, Australia.
One source briefed on Navy plans said there has also been discussion about stationing ships in the Philippines.
Ernie Bower, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the emerging strategy for Southeast Asia would be far different from the big U.S. bases established in Japan and South Korea in the last century.
"We're exploring a new arrangement with a smaller footprint, that is mission-specific, and culturally and politically more palatable to countries," he said, adding that it would be difficult for Washington to drum up much political support for big bases in the region. Forward-stationing versus permanent bases would also save the Navy money, he said.
Greenert did not provide a timetable for the LCS stationing in Singapore, but said the ships would conduct cooperative counterpiracy or countertrafficking operations around the South China Sea. They would also deploy to other places to counter terrorism or train with partner nations.
Greenert did not mention stationing LCS ships in the Philippines, but said surveillance planes like Boeing Co's P-8A Poseidon manned aircraft or the unmanned Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) built by Northrop Grumman Corp would periodically deploy there or to Thailand.
Greenert said the Navy would also replace minesweepers in Bahrain with littoral combat ships next decade and planned to station four destroyers at an existing site in Rota, Spain.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is traveling in Asia this week, but has no plans to stop in Singapore or the Philippines, a according to a spokeswoman for his office.
Mabus met with Singapore's prime minister in November 2010 and toured Singapore's Changi naval base. He had planned another visit in August, but had to cancel his plans and rush home after 30 U.S. troops were killed when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan.
Bilateral military ties between the United States and Singapore have continued to grow since the two countries signed a strategic framework agreement in 2005. They have engaged in joint training, military exercises and ship visits.
The Lockheed-built USS Freedom littoral combat ship is in San Diego for tests and trials after undergoing maintenance. Operational details about the expected date and destination of the ship's first deployment are "still under discussion," said Navy spokesman Commander Jason Salata.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Gary Hill)