WASHINGTON and COLOGNE, Germany — The U.S. Navy’s four guided-missile destroyers in Rota, Spain, could soon get company.

Senior U.S. military officials are pushing to get two more destroyers forward-deployed in Europe, and the move appears to have the support of top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In a recent hearing, SASC Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., questioned the top U.S. general in Europe about moving more Navy assets to Spain.

The issue seems likely to be one of the questions faced by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly as they testify before Inhofe’s committee on Wednesday.

Navy leaders were previously hesitant to commit more forces to forward deploy in Europe, arguing that home port swaps pull destroyers away from carrier strike groups.

Forward-deployed ships are hulls that operate from a home base in theater instead of from major U.S. ports such as Norfolk, Virginia, or San Diego, California. Those ships periodically rotate back to the states and are replaced with other ships to maintain U.S. presence overseas.

On Feb. 25, U.S. European Command head Gen. Tod Wolters told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he wanted two extra Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in theater to provide sensing and to enable command and control across a wider area.

“Those two additional DDGs would allow us the opportunity to continue to improve our ability to get indications and warnings in the potential battlespace and also dramatically improve our ability to better command and control,” Wolters told the panel.

And because of the flexibility destroyers provide, they can comprehensively defend all areas along Europe’s coast, he added. The destroyers Ross, Carney, Porter and Donald Cook have been crisscrossing the European theater since their arrival in 2014.

With a primary mission of ballistic missile defense for Europe, the ships have done everything from strikes on Syria and naval-gun fire support in Libya to missile tests off the Scottish coast and Black Sea patrols.

But the first four ships are due to rotate back to the states soon — the plan was to rotate back for dry docking after six years. And the Navy is bemoaning the loss of so many assets to support the Rota mission.

In 2018, then-head of Fleet Forces Command Adm. Phil Davidson said the ships forward deployed to Rota were taking a toll on readiness back home, especially since rotating them back has a significant impact on ships getting ready to deploy overseas.

“I can tell you that the four ships I’ve got to send next, I’m already pulling them out of strike groups to do the modernization they need to go over there," Davidson said. "Then I’m going to get four ships back that then are going to require their docking availability and some modernization as well.

“Pretty soon this looks like eight ships that are out of the strike group rotation for three years. We’re going to need a bigger Navy to apply that kind of policy.”

In April 2017, the destroyer Ross fired Tomahawk missiles at Syrian regime targets in a punitive strike aimed at dissuading Syrian President Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict. (U.S. Navy)
In April 2017, the destroyer Ross fired Tomahawk missiles at Syrian regime targets in a punitive strike aimed at dissuading Syrian President Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict. (U.S. Navy)

Proponents of a more robust European presence argue Fleet Forces Command could make its life easier if it didn’t bring the ships all the way back home for dry docking.

A source familiar with the Navy’s maintenance infrastructure in Spain said the service could use Spanish shipbuilder Navantia’s dry docks in Cadiz for deep maintenance, and that the Navy has enjoyed consistently high-quality work from that yard.

Navantia in 2013 won a contract to maintain four destroyers. Officials have renewed the deal several times, though the number of possible extensions under the initial terms is running out.

“To the date, Navantia has been capable of delivering on time and with the requested quality,” company spokeswoman Esther Benito told Defense News. Asked whether the company has the resources to service six ships, she demurred. “Rota facilities and Navantia facilities have huge capacities. But we cannot make other deductions,” the spokeswoman said.

Improved infrastructure

Meanwhile, the European Deterrence Initiative, a large U.S. program meant to beef up military infrastructure across the continent following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, has consistently pumped money into Rota.

“Through EDI we've been in a position to where we've been able to improve and mature the infrastructure at Rota,” Wolters said. “If you ask me to accept two more destroyers tomorrow, we actually possess the infrastructure at Rota to be able to house those two additional destroyers, a reflection of the value of the funds for deterrence.”

The idea of placing two additional destroyers at Rota has had U.S. European Command’s backing for years. The location is convenient for reaching hot spots in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and points farther north in the Atlantic and North Sea.

The number of U.S. Navy destroyers ported at Rota is restricted to four in a bilateral agreement initially struck in 1988 and amended in 2012 and 2015. Adding two more ships to the roster likely would be significant enough to warrant opening the deal for new negotiations.

The Spanish government chose to skip that step last year during a climate of political uncertainty, authorizing smaller increases to the U.S. presence at Rota to accommodate additional helicopters and their crew, local newspaper El Pais reported last June.

Basing six destroyers at Rota would mean more breathing room for deterrence missions against Russia, especially in the Black Sea, said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces on the continent.

“We’ve got the be able to compete there,” he told Defense News.

The move also would send a signal of support to Europe, “despite what the president says,” added Hodges, referring to President Donald Trump’s mixed messages to America’s allies in Europe.

“The Navy is so important for projecting power. Six destroyers would be real capability,” Hodges said.

The additional deployments also would signify a decidedly “high-end” U.S. naval posture in Europe, said Sebastian Bruns, head of the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the University of Kiel.

“Six BMD DDGs means: war fighting first, and of the high-end type. This would not be a sign of soft power,” Bruns said, using acronyms for destroyers with ballistic missile defense capabilities.

As they await a decision in Washington, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid say they are following the playbook to swap out the four destroyers already there with newer ships. That rotation is slated to begin this year when Roosevelt replaces Carney.