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Navy 6th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolfe, right, shakes hands with outgoing commander Vice Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr. during a change of command ceremony in Naples, Italy in October.
Navy 6th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolfe, right, shakes hands with outgoing commander Vice Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr. during a change of command ceremony in Naples, Italy in October. (Geoff Ziezulewicz/Stars and Stri)
Navy 6th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolfe, right, shakes hands with outgoing commander Vice Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr. during a change of command ceremony in Naples, Italy in October.
Navy 6th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolfe, right, shakes hands with outgoing commander Vice Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr. during a change of command ceremony in Naples, Italy in October. (Geoff Ziezulewicz/Stars and Stri)
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Hopper launches a missile to intercept a ballistic missile during a test in the Pacific Ocean in 2009. Four of the destroyers are likely to be stationed at Naval Station Rota, Spain, in the coming years as part of Europe?s missile defense shield. Along the way, U.S. 6th Fleet will be able to use the ships for a variety of other missions.
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Hopper launches a missile to intercept a ballistic missile during a test in the Pacific Ocean in 2009. Four of the destroyers are likely to be stationed at Naval Station Rota, Spain, in the coming years as part of Europe?s missile defense shield. Along the way, U.S. 6th Fleet will be able to use the ships for a variety of other missions. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

This story has been corrected:

NAPLES, Italy — The assignment to the Navy’s 6th Fleet of four ships with missile defense capability signals changing needs for changing times, fleet commanding officer Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolfe said Friday.

While details are still being worked out regarding the ships that will be stationed at Naval Station Rota in Spain, Pandolfe said it’s a “good likelihood” they will be Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The decision was announced in October by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, two days after Pandolfe took command of 6th fleet.

Leaders saw what four destroyers deployed with 6th Fleet could do for European missile defense and other regional needs when making the decision, Pandolfe said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. The ships will begin arriving in fiscal 2014.

These destroyers are equipped with the Aegis combat system, what the Navy calls a “detect to kill” array of radar and ordnance that will be the main line of defense in NATO’s European missile shield program.

“It will provide multi-mission ships in theater that can conduct ballistic missile defense and can conduct other missions as well,” Pandolfe said.

“As times change, the force structure changes,” he said. “These ships are going to be extremely valuable to us.”

“This ship can be used for exercises, it can be used for engagement, it can be used for training, it can be used for operations that are emergent, contingency response operations, as well as ballistic missile defense,” said Pandolfe, who before arriving in Naples served as the head of the surface warfare division at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, where he led efforts to restart construction of the Arleigh Burke destroyer line. “The ships can really do pretty much everything.”

The initiative is a reflection of the strategic importance of 6th Fleet’s waters, Eric Wertheim, a defense consultant, author and editor of the Naval Institute’s “Combat Fleets of the World,” said in an email last month.

Sixth Fleet’s area of operations is the Navy’s largest, stretching from the North Pole down through the Mediterranean Sea and Africa, encompassing 14 million square miles of land, 20 million square miles of water and 105 nations.

Sixth Fleet spearheaded the initial Libyan operations this past spring as the international community got organized, he noted.

“As we’ve seen in recent events in the region (such as the Libyan and Egyptian unrest) – it’s vital to have a well-rounded mix of assets available in any theater of operations,” Wertheim said. “As a superpower, we never know exactly what threats we’re going to face, so it helps to have a force in theater that’s able to respond to any contingency.”

Pandolfe said stationing the ships at Rota also will save the Navy “wear and tear” costs because different ships won’t have to transit the Atlantic to fulfill the missile defense mission.

Until now, the only ship forward-deployed in 6th Fleet waters was the flagship USS Mt. Whitney. Normally, deployed ships and boats transiting through fleet waters temporarily became fleet assets.

Deep maintenance on the four ships will be done in the States, but intermediate-level maintenance will be contracted out, likely to bidders in the region, Pandolfe said.

Forward-deploying ships outside the States brings its own set of challenges, he said.

“There are unique aspects to how you train those crews and how you certify those crews and maintain those ships,” he said. “We are studying how we will do that from this theater.”

Despite having no permanent 6th Fleet ships until the destroyers arrive in a few years, Pandolfe said his command gets the assets it needs.

The fleet supports U.S. European and Africa commands.

“There’s a huge amount going on, from ship visits to Russia to leadership engagement in South Africa, from (antisubmarine warfare) exercises in the Atlantic to counter-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean,” he said.

Geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Pandolfe as a rear admiral.

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