SINGAPORE — Four US warships designed to fight in coastal areas similar to Southeast Asian waters will be operating out of Singapore by 2018, up from one currently, a senior US Navy official said Tuesday.

The "rotational deployment" of the vessels, called littoral combat ships (LCS), comes as China continues to flex its muscles in the South China Sea and tensions remain on the Korean Peninsula.

"We will soon see up to four LCS here in Singapore as we rotationally deploy Seventh Fleet ships," said Rear Adm. Charles Williams.

"We envision four ships here by May 2017 to sometime in 2018 ... but I think what you have is that by 2018, four LCS ships will be rotationally deployed here to Singapore."

Williams, commander of the Seventh Fleet's Task Force 73, was speaking to reporters aboard the USS Fort Worth, an LCS on a 16-month deployment to Southeast Asia.

It replaced another LCS, the USS Freedom, which recently ended an eight-month tour of duty.

The USS Fort Worth is set to take part in exercise Foal Eagle, a joint military drill with South Korea from Feb. 24-March 6.

It will also join regional navies in the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercises and the International Maritime Defence Exhibition.

Fast and agile, LCS vessels can be adapted for specific missions through a system of interchangeable modules and crew.

The US Navy plans to build 52 LCS vessels at a total cost of $37 billion but the program has become controversial due to cost inflation, design and construction issues.

In 2012 the then-US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that Washington would shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia.

China is embroiled in a maritime dispute with four Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — as well as with Taiwan over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

While not a claimant, the United States has said it has an interest to ensure freedom of navigation in the area

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