This has been in the works for years, and now the announcement is in the record books: The Navy will begin forward-deploying Aegis ballistic missile defense warships in Spain as part of the U.S. commitment to build a European missile shield, Secretary Panetta said Wednesday.
Given the implications of the Obama administration's "phased adaptive approach," it was only a matter of time: As you saw not too long ago, the U.S. Navy gets to bear the responsibility for the missile shield over the next few years until at least 2015, and probably beyond, with standing cruiser and destroyer patrols around the Mediterranean. Moving ships, crews and their families to the Continent -- if all that's in the works as part of this -- will save money and wear from trans-Atlantic trips to and from from the East Coast, leaders hope.
The Navy will station four Aegis ships in Rota, Reuters reports, although it isn't clear which ones or whether they'll be cruisers or destroyers. Given the track record of the Navy's involvement with the Euro-program, it may well be learning about this for the first time today. When the Obama administration first announced that it would rely on "sea-based" missile defense, it did not appear the Navy had been read in, and officials had no plans or specifics ready for what that their new standing BMD mission would entail. Even today, there are still questions about who will be responsible for overall command and control once everything is up and running.
The thinking Wednesday appeared to be that four warships in Rota means one can be on station at any given time, though it was too early for clarity about the Euro-ships' exact missions. Will they be devoted exclusively to Mediterranean BMD patrols -- and does that mean their crews must train for all the other missions that an Aegis ship can handle? The Navy might decide it can save money by slacking off on, say, anti-submarine warfare if all a destroyer will do is steam boxes in the Med in case it spots a missile.
Or will the ships be up-and-ready units for worldwide tasking, just like U.S. and Japan-based warships, and could that mean they occasionally take assignments elsewhere in the world while a U.S.-based ship subs in for a missile defense patrol? And how will the Navy decide which crews get to jet off to Europe to live the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and which ones stay trapped in Norfolk, Va? No word yet.
More questions: Will standing patrols make the U.S. Navy into a kind of catch-all international coast guard? Y'got the most advanced warship in the world, bristling with modern sensors, weapons and equipment, and manned by the best trained crew at sea. No commander wants an asset like that just trolling in a big figure eight until the deployment timer dings. As with the Navy ships that have done trial BMD deployments before, commanders are going to have to find things for these ships to do.
Part of this will be exercising with allied navies and making goodwill visits to some of the world's best liberty ports. But a lot of it also might be giving fuel to stranded yachtsmen off the Riviera; or trying to settle arguments between Greek fishermen; or being roped in to helping intercept migrants or smugglers. So the question becomes, should U.S. taxpayers be on the hook for $40,000 per steaming day per DDG (that's 2008 dollars) to help keep African immigrants out of Sicily?
Do you think it's worth it as part of the long-term strategic commitment to Europe? Or is this the wrong kind of obligation to be taking on in the face of the coming build-down?