ROTA, Spain — The European missile defense shield moved one step closer to completion Friday as a fourth American warship capable of shooting down ballistic missiles pulled into port here for permanent stationing.
Naval officers and family members greeted the crew of the USS Carney, an Aegis missile defense destroyer that left Mayport, Fla., earlier this month for Rota. The ship will make its first missile patrol in November, part of a four-ship rotation based in the nearby U.S. naval base here.
“You are bringing a vital capability in a very challenging, volatile and dynamic time,” Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, told sailors. “But we know you are ready.”
The ships are a central part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the Aegis-based ballistic missile defense system intended to defend NATO allies and U.S. bases in Europe against Iranian short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Russia opposes the system, saying it threatens its own strategic nuclear missiles along its western border, a claim disputed by the U.S.
The U.S. conducted its first ballistic missile defense patrol in the Mediterranean in 2011, deploying the USS Monterrey from the East Coast. It built a high-powered radar in Turkey and won Spanish agreement for basing the four ships in the same year.
Next month, the Navy will open the first of its two ground-based missile interceptor sites, in Deveselu, Romania. A second site, in Redzikowo, Poland, is scheduled to open in 2018. A command center at Ramstein Air Base in Germany will link the system’s components.
Ferguson was greeted Friday with a salute by Carney commanding officer Cmdr. Ken Pickard. Sailors with family members who had already made the move to Rota then filed out of the ship to greet their loved ones.
“We have the house all set up,” said Candace Reed, who waited at the pier for her husband, Chief Petty Officer Eric Reed. “All we needed was him.”
More than 1,200 military billets have now moved to Rota from the U.S. East Coast with the arrival of the four destroyers. The first two ships, the USS Donald Cook and USS Ross, arrived in 2014; the USS Porter came in April. About 2,100 family members are expected to come with the four ships.
Before the ships’ arrival, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa counted only one vessel stationed permanently in the theater. The destroyers expand the command’s options at a time of growing threats across the theater, from Russian provocations in the north to militant activity in North Africa.
“These ships are not just for missile defense,” Ferguson told reporters at the event. “They can do anti-submarine operations, they can do air defense for high-value units like aircraft carriers for Spain, Italy, France. They operate with our allies and improve our interoperability. So they bring a capability to the theater.”
That significance isn’t lost on the 300 sailors aboard the Carney, although it often gives way to daily routines. Even as they approached Spain, crewmembers continued the same schedule of meetings, drills and training. During a day-long stop in the Azores, they touched up the paint on the hull and washed windows.
They woke early Friday for a final washdown before hanging bunting along the sides. Sailors dressed in white crackerjacks and manned the rails as the ship approached the pier, many laying eyes for the first time on their new home.
The ship’s command has worked closely to prepare sailors and families for the change. Some of it is familiar ground — the Carney stopped at Rota in May 2014 after returning from a ballistic missile patrol in the Persian Gulf.
Yet most of Carney’s crew left family members in Florida, either because they had too little time left with the ship or because of the quick turnaround between arrival and the first patrol.
“When we left the pier on the sixth of September, a third of the crew is ecstatic because they get to go home to their families in Rota,” Command Master Chief Jon Lonsdale said. “(The other) two-thirds of the crew, it’s like deployment started Sept. 6.”
Rota is located on the Atlantic coast in southwest Spain near Cadiz and is home to a major Spanish naval base. The American base opened within the Spanish installation in 1953, hosting both ships and maritime patrol aircraft during the Cold War, before its population shrank in the 2000s.