The US destroyer Donald Cook leaves Norfolk, Va., for its assignment to Rota, Spain, as a missile defense ship. (MCSA Shelby Tucker/US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The US destroyer Donald Cook shoved off from Norfolk, Va., Jan. 31, bound for Rota, Spain, where the Arleigh Burke-class ship will become the first of four ballistic missile defense (BMD)-capable ships to be based in Europe.
The move, in the works since the fall of 2011, is part of the Obama administration’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) plan to protect allies in the European region from ballistic missile threats, including missiles that could be launched from Iran. The plan includes forward-basing the Aegis destroyers in Spain, and establishing two Aegis Ashore ground stations — one in Romania to be operational by 2015, and another in Poland, to be up and running in 2018.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, visiting Poland Jan. 30, highlighted the two countries’ BMD efforts.
“Our nations continue to work closely together, both bilaterally and through NATO, in response to ballistic missile threats,” Hagel said. “And the United States is firmly committed to deploying a US missile defense system to Poland. We look forward to this system coming online in 2018 as part of Phase 3 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach.”
The destroyers in Spain will officially be referred to as “forward deployed naval forces” (FDNF), something of a euphemism for basing ships outside the US. The FDNF term is widely associated with US ships based in Japan, as well as ships in Bahrain and elsewhere.
The FDNF construct allows the Navy to provide more forward-based presence with fewer ships. Transit time from the US to the operating area is eliminated, and the ships are able to respond quickly to a wide range of contingencies.
“Permanently forward-deploying four ships in Rota will enable us to be in the right place, not just at the right time, but all the time,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said of the move.
Operational BMD forces were first deployed to the western Pacific, where the threat from North Korea has garnered the most attention. Beginning in 2009, the US adopted the PAA as a structure for establishing regional missile defense, with the European plan known as EPAA. The construct also is in use in the Asia-Pacific region, and is to be implemented in the Middle East.
Aegis BMD ships have been carrying out Mediterranean patrols with the US 6th Fleet since 2011.
The movement of the four destroyers to Rota, along with the establishment of a ground-based radar, is Phase 1 of the EPAA. Phase 2 is the Aegis Ashore installation in Romania, armed with Standard SM-3 IB interceptor missiles, and Phase 3 is the Polish Aegis Ashore installation, armed with SM-3 IIA missiles. A planned Phase 4 involving SM-3 IIB missiles was canceled by the US in March 2013.
Donald Cook will be joined in a few months in Rota by the destroyer Ross, while Carney and Porter will follow in 2015. All but the Mayport, Fla.-based Carney were homeported in Norfolk.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Navy estimates 1,239 military personnel — 1,204 crewmembers and 35 shore-based support personnel — will move to Rota as part of the EPAA, along with about 2,100 family members. Moving the four ships and their dependents to Rota will cost about $92 million, with another $100 million being spent annually on supporting the ships in Spain.
The Navy has also established a new regional maintenance center detachment in Rota to oversee industrial engineering and contractor services to maintain and modernize the four destroyers.
When all four ships have transferred to Spain, the normal pattern will see two ships in port and two on patrol. The Navy emphasized that the ships not only will be tasked with BMD duties, but will also “perform a myriad of tasks, NATO missile defense, the full spectrum of maritime security operations, bilateral and multilateral training exercises, and NATO operations and deployments.”
A major base for the Spanish Navy, Rota is a familiar port of call for US ships deploying to and through the Mediterranean. From its location on Spain’s southwest Atlantic coast, it’s about 65 miles southeast to the Strait of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Med. ■