The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold is seen at sea in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility in August 2012.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold is seen at sea in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility in August 2012. (Shawn Truesdale/U.S. Navy)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Two additional ships with ballistic missile defense capabilities will relocate to Yokosuka during the next three years, a move aimed at placing the Navy’s best ships in the Asia-Pacific region.

The destroyers USS Benfold and USS Milius will leave San Diego and report to Yokosuka in the summers of 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in April that two more ships would homeport in Japan by 2017, though the specific ships hadn’t been announced until today.

Meanwhile, the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry, currently homeported at Norfolk, Va., will replace USS Lassen at Yokosuka in early 2016. Lassen will make its new home in Mayport, Fla., Navy officials said Friday.

Benfold, Milius and Barry are all scheduled for mid-life modernization upgrades, according to a Navy statement. The upgrades include the most advanced version of the Aegis combat system, which covers air, surface and undersea warfare, in addition to missile defense.

The ships will also receive new machinery, computers and an updated gallery, among other upgrades.

The advanced ships come to Japan as North Korea continues to develop its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

The ships also arrive as tensions simmer in the region between U.S. allies and China, which is developing a missile program designed to prevent access to large swathes of the East and South China seas.

Hagel made his initial announcement in April during a trip to Tokyo, justifying the move as a “response to Pyongyang¹s pattern of provocative and destabilizing actions, including recent missile launches in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

The latest ship transfers are part of an ongoing transfer of advanced hardware to Japan that has accelerated since 2012.

In the air, 7th Fleet has replaced its aging Prowler electronic warfare aircraft with newer Growlers, which are based on the F-18 airframe; added the HSM-77 helicopter squadron to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington; and, deployed the new P-8 Poseidon sea surveillance aircraft over Asia-Pacific waters.

On the surface, the 7th Fleet swapped the USS Cowpens for the upgraded guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam.

Next year, USS Ronald Reagan will replace George Washington as the fleet’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier. The swap, originally envisioned for late summer, may occur later in 2015, Navy officials said earlier this year. Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

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