By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior officials from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps said on Tuesday that growing capabilities of new weapons systems could help offset cuts in defense spending that will shrink the number of ships and aircraft in coming years.
Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, head of Marine Corps Forces Command, said some big programs such as the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft would face cuts in the future, but the service would still be able to respond to crises around the world.
"We might not have the capacity overall, but we're going to have the capability to respond to contingency plans," Hejlik told reporters in Washington.
He gave no details about Pentagon plans to reduce a proposed multiyear purchase of 122 V-22 aircraft built by Boeing Co and Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc. Hejlik added that details of those cuts and others would be released with the Pentagon's budget plan for fiscal 2013 on February 13.
U.S. defense contractors cite increasing pressure on sales and earnings given plans by the U.S. military, the world's biggest weapons buyer, to reduce spending by almost $500 billion over the next decade.
Hejlik and Admiral John Harvey, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, underscored their commitment to ensuring that U.S. military forces would be properly staffed, equipped and trained before they were sent overseas, despite the budget cuts.
Both officials highlighted the increasing capabilities of weapons systems, and said U.S. ships would continue to evolve over time, which could help offset a reduction in total numbers.
For instance, budget pressures had reduced the number of U.S. amphibious ships, but many now had small unmanned vehicles on board that could augment a ship's intelligence and surveillance work, said Hejlik, who plans to retire this summer.
The Navy would also use transport or "sealift" ships to augment the shrinking amphibious fleet, which is being scaled back to a target of 33 ships from the previous target of 38 ships.
"Would we like to have more money? Sure -- everyone would, but that's where innovation comes from, when you're stressed a little bit as far as money and time," Hejlik said. "If there's one good thing with less money, is it really makes you think."
Harvey, whose successor was nominated last week by President Barack Obama, said upgrades to existing ships could help ensure that U.S. forces could still carry out their missions.
SHIP MODERNIZATION SEEN AS KEY
"We'd like to have more (ships), we don't always get that, Harvey said. "But one thing we can do ... is to make sure that we evolve those ships, that we modernize those ships to face the threats that we see coming our way," Harvey said.
He said Admiral Jonathan Greenert had initiated a force structure review that would revise the Navy's target for the size of its fleet from the current target of 313 ships.
"Circumstances have now changed. Our strategy shift -- our pivot is taking place," Harvey said, noting that the final number depended on the assumptions used in the review.
Pentagon budget plans released last week called for cuts to several ship programs over the next five years, including eight fewer Joint High Speed Vessels built by Austal, the delay of one Virginia-class submarine, and two fewer Littoral Combat Ships.
Harvey said the budget would include funding for a new class of ships called mobile landing platforms, but he gave no details.
Harvey said Navy officials were overhauling the USS Ponce, a 1970 amphibious transport ship that will sail for the Middle East region by June 1 to combat enemy mines.
The ship, envisioned to launch small boats and up to four MH-53 helicopters, would serve as a bridge to the new mobile landing platform program, he said.
He said the Ponce was not intended as a "mothership" for elite U.S. special forces conducting operations in the region, as some media reports suggested this weekend.
"I think they put two and two together and got 22," he said, although he acknowledged that the terms for the conversion of the ship did require certain security measures that would allow special operations forces to work from the ship.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)