NAPLES, Italy — Four U.S. Navy ships will be stationed at Naval Station Rota, Spain, beginning in 2013 as part of a European missile defense system, defense officials announced Wednesday.

The ships will bring with them about 3,000 U.S. military personnel and family members, roughly doubling the American community in Rota, which presently serves as a logistics hub and has no ships home-ported there.

At a news conference Wednesday evening at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hailed the agreement as a first step in a 10-year European missile defense plan, as well as a vindication of the alliance’s relevance.

“This announcement should send a very strong signal that the United States is still continuing to invest in this alliance,” Panetta said.

Aside from missile defense, the four ships will conduct a variety of other missions in U.S. 6th Fleet waters, he said.

Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the agreement will be an economic boon for the Cadiz region, where NAS Rota is located.

Rota was chosen because of its strategic location at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, Zapatero said.

The ships will act as a floating defense shield against potential missile strikes from Iran.

All are equipped with the Aegis combat system, a complex array of sensors, communications and weapons systems that can detect, track and fire on incoming missiles and other threats, according to the Navy.

These ships make up the first piece of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense plan, which the White House introduced in 2009 and NATO endorsed last year.

Last month, Turkey agreed to emplace U.S. early warning radar on its soil, facing Iran and linked to the Aegis system.

Pentagon officials said they are looking to have the Turkish component deployed by the end of the year.

Sixth Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Marc Boyd said Wednesday that it was too early to say how the new ship assignments will affect life at Rota.

“This is the beginning of the process,” Boyd said. “We look forward to releasing more details as they become available.”

Until now, the only ship home-ported in 6th Fleet waters was the flag ship USS Mount Whitney.

The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Monterrey deployed to 6th Fleet waters in March for a six-month deployment as the inaugural Navy contribution to the new missile defense shield.

Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

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