USS George Washington, East China Sea (CNN) -- By his own admission, one of the U.S Navy's top commanders says his Pacific fleet "gets all the best stuff" when it comes to state-of-the-art weaponry -- an undeniable reflection of President Barack Obama's so-called pivot towards Asia.The flagship of its 7th fleet, the Nimitz-class USS George Washington aircraft carrier boasts a formidable arsenal; from the latest FA-18 fighter jets, to anti-submarine helicopters and early-warning surveillance aircraft. Add to this the fleet's numerous missile destroyers, cruisers and submarines and the statement of intent is clear to see -- Washington is serious about its role in the region.
"It's a long-term effort for us here," Fleet commander Vice Admiral Robert L. Thomas, told CNN aboard the giant vessel amid the muffled roar of jet engines from the flight deck directly above. "From a policy perspective it's a shift in balance of not only our resources but our thinking across diplomatic, information, economic and military lines to the Pacific.
"But I would offer that the 7th Fleet never left -- we've been a strong presence here for the past 70 years. We're slowly shifting from a 50/50 mix in the United States Navy to a 40% Atlantic, 60% Pacific mix," he added, referring to the gradual swing away from traditional areas of operation in the West.
'Most advanced' weapons
"From a military point of view -- my narrow swim lane of responsibility -- we measure our presence in two ways: capability and capacity. The capacity is coming -- more numbers over time -- but it's the capability that's leading the charge here.
"I get the preponderance of Virginia-class warships. I get the front-line submarine deployments out here. The carrier air wing that operates from the George Washington is the most advanced in the U.S. Navy -- and our task force commanders out here get the full support of the 'home office' in Washington."
In the past few days, these hugely expensive military "assets" have been deployed on a high-profile combat exercise with an armada of ships from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) off the island of Okinawa, playing out a series of scenarios including the defense of Japan and the response to a regional crisis -- timely given China's increasingly assertive behavior in the region.
China looms over U.S.-Japan drills
At the same time, China's own military development has been emphasized by the first deployment of its own aircraft carrier -- The Liaoning.
While most analysts would point to it being decades behind its American counterparts technologically -- it's actually a refitted Soviet-era vessel purchased from the Ukraine in the 1990s -- its very existence is emblematic of Beijing's growing ambitions.
Diverse security threats
Yet beyond the waters of the East China Sea, the threats to global stability in recent years have become far more complex and diverse and less likely to be played out on traditional battlegrounds where huge armies or navies face off against each other.
From carrier to 'lily pad'
Thomas was also keen to expand on the U.S. Navy's diversity of operations, most notably their recent humanitarian mission in the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan had flattened much of the eastern parts of the country.
Within 48 hours, the carrier and nine other surface vessels had left Hong Kong and arrived in the Philippines Sea to begin carrying our relief operations.
Combat aircraft were deliberately flown off the carrier to make room for more helicopters able to deliver badly needed assistance to areas made inaccessible by the typhoon and the subsequent storm surge. Thomas said in many cases, the U.S. Seahawk helicopters were "first responders" able to relay back previously unknown information about local conditions and the extent of the disaster.
"We transitioned (the carrier) into a vertical lift lily pad for the delivery of food and water supplies," he said.
Critics may point to this being an example of Washington adopting a "soft power" approach politically in the region at a time when its influence is being challenged by China, though there was little doubting the pride expressed by many of the carrier's highly-trained and motivated crew in performing such a role in the Leyte Gulf.
Relief effort boosts U.S. soft power in Asia region
But does serving as a deterrent or performing aid missions with hugely expensive weapons of war justify the vast cost of maintaining such an arsenal?
The use of unmanned drones in other theaters illustrates that massed armies with boots on the ground, tanks and artillery are not necessarily the most effective way of dealing with terrorism or insurgencies with a minimal cost in terms of deaths to combatants.
With military expansion seemingly inextricably linked to economic progress, and the exponential growth of armed forces fueled by territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region, the large-scale presence of this carrier strike group seems unlikely to change, though the scope of its missions will adapt to meet the increasing diversity of challenges -- both hard and soft.