ROTA, Spain — The former Cold War submarine base in this sleepy town in southern Spain is about to experience a dramatic transformation — it will become the centerpiece of NATO’s new ballistic missile defense shield stretching across southern and eastern Europe.
In February, the first of four U.S. Aegis missile destroyers, the USS Donald Cook, is scheduled to arrive here for permanent stationing. Another ship will come later in 2014, followed by two more in 2015. The Arleigh-Burke class ships, which are capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, will patrol the Mediterranean basin on four-month rotations on a mission to protect Europe from the threat of attack from Iran.
The program, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, is part of a wider NATO plan that includes land-based interceptor batteries in Romania and Poland and a radar system in Turkey. The plan has caused a major rift with Russia, which says the shield is aimed against its own nuclear missile arsenal.
Rota, located near the Strait of Gibraltar, will nearly double in population by the time the last ship arrives in 2015. The four vessels will bring more sailors and families to the town, as well as strategic significance as a base that is on the front lines of U.S. strategy in the region.
“We’re not a sleepy hollow anymore,” base commanding officer Capt. Gregory S. Pekari said.
Stationing the destroyers at Rota allows for their seamless rotation without draining manpower because of long deployments from the United States, said Vice Adm. William Hunter Hilarides, head of the Naval Sea Systems Command.
“We’ve learned over a long time how long you can deploy people before they won’t do it anymore,” Hilarides said. “And so if you’re going to have a lot of ships but still punch forward, punch above your weight forward, you’ve got to go change that dynamic.”
The arrival of the ships coincides with increased U.S. interest in the Mediterranean and Africa, where an area of instability ranges from Syria down to Egypt and across much of northern Africa, parts of which have become havens for militant groups. The Mediterranean also remains the gateway for U.S. deployments to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, where operations in Afghanistan and tensions with Iran have led to increased tours by carrier groups and smaller craft.
The four destroyers will significantly add to the number of ships controlled by the U.S. Sixth Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, a command that for years has had only its flagship, the USS Mount Whitney, as a permanent presence.
The U.S. established Rota in 1953 in a deal with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in exchange for economic and military aid to the regime.
Located inside a 6,100-acre Spanish base on the Bay of Cadiz, the installation offered a way-station to ships and aircraft transiting the Atlantic before entering the Mediterranean. In 1960, it received a squadron of Skywarrior reconnaissance jets.
Rota further expanded with the arrival of the Polaris missile-wielding Submarine Squadron 16 from Charleston, S.C., in 1964.
With the growth of the base came an injection of American culture.
The first tattoo shop in the area opened soon after the first Americans came. Local bars filled with the arrival of ships, and residents watched as sailors flooded down Avenida San Fernando, the main drag between base and downtown Rota. Marijo Resinas Verano, who works for the town of Rota, remembered being warned by her parents as a teenager to stay inside.
“They told us, ‘Don’t go out! The fleet is here!” she said, laughing.
But by 1979, the submarines had been redeployed to the U.S. East Coast. Anti-submarine and maritime patrol units continued, although the budget cuts of the 1990s lowered the pace of operations at Rota.
The base played a minor role in the logistical chain for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military population began to fall in earnest in 2003 — from 12,000 personnel in the 1970s and 80s, Rota had dipped to 3,700 by 2008.
Fortunes outside the base fell around the same time. The global financial crisis revealed the country’s troubled economy, forcing mortgages into foreclosure, businesses into bankruptcy and unemployment upward. The government cut military spending by 20 percent in the past four years.
It was against this dire backdrop that Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2011 announced the agreement for Rota to host a component of NATO’s new ballistic missile shield. The four Aegis ships would join a radar unit in Turkey and the future “Aegis-Ashore” launching sites in Romania and Poland.
Among the benefits to the Spanish economy are a 200 million euros ($276 million) maintenance contract for a state-owned ship builder, Cadiz-based Navantia. Other benefits are expected to trickle into the surrounding economy. Roughly 1,200 sailors and 1,800 family members are expected with the ships, officials here say.
Many of Rota’s 25,000 residents say they know relatives or family members who are putting long-vacant apartments back on the market for rent. They say businesses in the town depend in part on Americans at the base and that an increase in population could only improve the local economy.
“It’s very fundamental here,” Juan Montoya Carpio, a manager at a downtown restaurant, said about the American presence. “If it wasn’t for them, in winter there would be no business.”
Municipal officials said they have prepared to welcome the new arrivals. Earlier this year, a delegation visited Ramstein, Germany, home to the massive U.S. air base, to share ideas with city officials there about managing community relations with Americans, according to the city’s tourism director, Ana Luna Peña. They came back with the idea of creating an “Office of Cooperation,” a meeting place for both Americans and Spaniards to find help in dealing with the other side.
Town officials also visited Norfolk in the summer to hold a town hall meeting for the Donald Cook sailors and their families.
“The aim is for them to live here, for them to make their life here,” Peña said.
On base, changes have been minor because the infrastructure was already in place for larger populations, said base commanding officer Capt. Gregory S. Pekari.
“The infrastructure, including the commissary and the exchange, which is fairly new, was all built upon the premise of the previous population in 2003,“ he said.
Some construction around the pier, including a weapons magazine and a warehouse for equipment from destroyers, is planned for the near future, Pekari said. By the end of 2013, the biggest outward change included the arrival of a maintenance detachment in December.
Speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the detachment last month, Hilarides said the move played a significant part in what was coming to Rota.
“Simply put, this detachment is a very, very important underpinning for a strategic shift for the United States Navy,” he said.