US plans to expand its drone fleet: Report

Washington:With China in mind, US plans to set up a new base in Australia and expand its existing one in the Philippines, besides increasing its fleet of drones to cut its burgeoning defence budget, media reports said today.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to make announcements in this regard unveiling the annual budget of the Pentagon and the new defence strategy for the US to meet the needs of the time within the financial constraints. "The plan…calls for a 30 per cent increase in the US fleet of armed unmanned aircraft in the coming years, defence officials said," The Wall Street Journal reported.

The US Army plans to eliminate at least eight brigades while reducing the size of the active duty Army from 570,000 to 490,000, cuts that are likely to hit armoured and heavy infantry units the hardest. But drone and special-operations deployments would continue to grow as they have in recent years, it said.

According to the daily, the new strategy would assign specific US-based Army brigades and Marine Expeditionary units to different regions of the world, where they would travel regularly for joint exercises and other missions, using permanent facilities and the forward-staging bases that some advisers call lily pads.

"Marines, for example, will use a new base in Darwin, Australia, as a launch pad for Southeast Asia, while the US is in talks to expand the US presence in the Philippines potential signals to China that the US has quick-response capability in its backyard, defence officials said," the daily reported.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post said the Philippines is in talks with the Obama administration about expanding the American military presence in the island nation, the latest in a series of strategic moves aimed at China. The negotiations are in the early stages. .

"Among the options under consideration are operating Navy ships from the Philippines, deploying troops on a rotational basis and staging more frequent joint exercises. Under each scenario, US forces would effectively be guests at existing foreign bases," the daily said. "The sudden rush by many in the Asia-Pacific region to embrace Washington is a direct reaction to China`s rise as a military power and its assertiveness in staking claims to disputed territories, such as the energy-rich South China Sea," said the Post.

US currently has about 600 Special Operations troops in the Philippines, where they advise local forces in their fight with rebels sympathetic to al-Qaeda.