NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The first of four U.S. warships that will be based in Europe to protect against a ballistic missile attack left Virginia on Friday for its new home port in Spain, which hasn't permanently hosted a U.S. ship since 1979.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook will be home ported in Rota, Spain, about 60 miles northwest of Gibraltar. The Cook, and the three other destroyers that will join it by the end of next year, are each equipped with the sophisticated Aegis radar system, which enables it to track and shoot down ballistic missiles.
"We will be bringing forward a protective umbrella to our forward deployed forces as well as to our allies and friends in Europe," Cmdr. Scott Jones, the Cook's commanding officer, told reporters before leaving Naval Station Norfolk. "The ship certainly does bring an awesome capability."
The ships are being forward deployed as part of the Obama administration's four-phase plan to put land- and sea-based radars and interceptors in several European locations over the next decade. The plan was developed in 2009 to protect against a potential Iranian nuclear threat and approved by NATO the following year. Since 2011, the U.S. has been rotating ships equipped with the radar system in and out of Europe from bases in Virginia and Florida.
Keeping four of the ships overseas will allow the Navy to keep a continuous presence in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic Ocean. It typically takes 10 to 14 days for a ship leaving the East Coast to travel to Europe.
"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 said in a written statement announcing the Cook's departure.
Rota, Spain, has served as a principal overseas base for the U.S. Navy since the early 1950s. It is already home to a U.S. Navy hospital and U.S. ships regularly stop there while overseas.
Jones said about a dozen families of crew members have already moved to Spain, but that most of them are waiting until the school year is over to relocate. Several sailors aboard the ship said they specifically chose to stay assigned to the Cook longer than they originally planned to so that they could live overseas.
Although the Cook will be home ported in Spain, sailors will still go out on lengthy deployments just as they do now. Navy officials declined to specify exactly how long those deployments would be, citing the need to maintain operational security.
For those serving aboard the ship, one of the perks of being forward deployed will be avoiding the long sail back to the East Coast once that deployment ends.
"It's always the worst part when you know you're coming home and then you're like, 'Alright, we're on our way home, but now we have our two week trip across the Atlantic,' " said Petty Officer 1st Class Aaron Tadlock, a fire control man. "So this is going to be really exciting to know that we've finished, but it's going to take us a day to get home now. So that's one really huge benefit about cutting out the trip over the Atlantic."
The next destroyer to move to Spain will be the USS Ross, which will leave Norfolk this summer. The Norfolk-based USS Porter and the Mayport, Fla.-based USS Carney will move to Spain in 2015.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis