The first of four U.S. Navy destroyers to form the centerpiece of Europe’s missile defense shield departed the U.S. East Coast on Friday for its new home port in southern Spain.
Plans call for the USS Donald Cook to be joined by three more Arleigh Burke-class missile-guided destroyers, which carry the Aegis weapon system, in the coming two years. All are to be stationed at the U.S. Navy base in Rota, Spain, on the Atlantic coast north of Gibraltar.
Other pieces of the missile defense shield, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, include land-based Aegis interceptor batteries in Romania and Poland, radar in Turkey and a command center at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany.
The plan has caused a major rift with Russia, which says the shield is aimed against its own nuclear missile arsenal. The U.S. and its NATO allies insist the defense system is to meant to protect Europe from potentially hostile countries in the region, such as Iran.
The destroyer detachment expands the Navy presence in Europe at a time when other services are drawing down across the continent. It follows the Navy’s current emphasis on forward deployment, or having ships stationed closer to areas of interest.
U.S. interest in the Mediterranean has risen in recent years because of conflicts and instability across the region, from Syria to Egypt and North Africa. The Mediterranean is also a significant waterway for commercial shipping and an access point to Middle Eastern waters from the Atlantic.
“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 is quoted as saying in a Defense Department news release on the Donald Cook’s departure.
The ships will make regular four-month deployments around the Mediterranean basin. In addition to operations related to missile defense, they will be available for other maritime security operations, bilateral and multilateral training exercises, and other NATO deployments, according to the release.
The three destroyers to join the Donald Cook in the coming years are the USS Ross and USS Porter from Norfolk, Va., and the USS Carney from Mayport, Fla. Destroyer Squadron 60 in Rota will control the four ships.
The ships will add roughly 1,200 sailors and personnel, and about 1,800 family members, to Rota, a former submarine base. Many of the newcomers will arrive in the summers, according to base officials.