DoD/Lisa Ferdinando

The U.S. is hoping to deploy new ground-based intermediate-range missiles to Asia "sooner rather than later," U.S. defense chief Mark Esper said of a move that could have huge ramifications for regional security.

Esper's remarks were likely to raise already-soaring tensions with Beijing and add to fears of a new arms race involving the U.S., China and Russia.

"Yes I would like to," Esper said late Saturday when asked if the United States was considering deploying new medium-range conventional weapons in Asia now that Washington is no longer bound by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the U.S. formally withdrew from a day earlier.

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The U.S. military could escort American ships through key waterways in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Wednesday.

"We will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it," Esper said at a Pentagon media availability.

However, Esper stressed on Wednesday that he was not announcing that U.S. Navy ships and aircraft would immediately begin escorting U.S. commercial ships through the Strait of Hormuz to deter Iranian aggression.

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The Pentagon is no longer topless. On Tuesday, the Senate voted to confirm Mark Esper as the United States' first permanent defense secretary in more than seven months.

Esper is expected to be sworn in as defense secretary later on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters.

"We are grateful for the Senate leadership and the Senate Armed Services Committee's willingness to quickly move through this process," Hoffman said.

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Showing just how far removed the war is from life at home, none of the Senators who questioned Army Secretary Mark Esper during his nearly three-hour confirmation hearing to become defense secretary asked about Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan was mentioned twice in passing, Esper did not face direct questions about the U.S. government's strategy of fighting the Taliban while simultaneously negotiating a peace settlement with them.

A total of 12 service members and at least two U.S. contractors have been killed in Afghanistan so far in 2019.

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An otherwise sleepy confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary nominee Mark Esper was jolted from its legislative stupor after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grilled the former Raytheon lobbyist on ethical issues regarding his involvement with his former employer.

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Jeff Schogol

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer took the reins at the Pentagon on Monday, becoming the third acting defense secretary since January.

Spencer is expected to temporarily lead the Pentagon while the Senate considers Army Secretary Mark Esper's nomination to succeed James Mattis as defense secretary. The Senate officially received Esper's nomination on Monday.

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