May 30, 2023 | The Messenger

Stationing US Navy Destroyers in Spain Increases Readiness in the Pacific

May 30, 2023 | The Messenger

Stationing US Navy Destroyers in Spain Increases Readiness in the Pacific

The U.S. Navy recently announced its intention to forward station an additional two Arleigh Burke-class ballistic missile defense-capable destroyers in Rota, Spain, raising the total number of U.S. destroyers homeported in this European port to six. This means the ships and crews will use Rota as their homeport for the next six to ten years and always be very close to any crisis or contingency in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. While it seems obvious that having immediate access to these ships is a boon to force posture and readiness to respond to a crisis in Europe – the more interesting observation is that this is also a boon for force posture and readiness in the Pacific as well, and that will contribute to the effort to deter the Chinese Communist Party’s aggression. 

This effort builds on a Navy initiative launched more than a decade ago. The placement of U.S. Navy destroyers in Rota was an idea developed in the Navy staff in 2010 and negotiated by U.S. European Command (EUCOM) with the Spanish in 2011 and 2012 with a final agreement reached in 2013 to place four destroyers in Rota. At the time, this Navy effort flew in the face of all other force posture decisions being made in by the Obama administration about European force posture.  The Department of Defense (DOD) ordered the removal of two Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCTs) — which was a reduction of 50% of all BCTs in Europe —  and the Air Force was ordered to remove an attack squadron from Germany as well. This countervailing move with maritime forces came because of ballistic missile defense (BMD) concerns from Iran and the development of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which also included the Aegis Ashore sites in Poland and Romania.

The Navy staff recognized the destroyers would also be of value outside of the BMD mission. It was felt that the destroyers could contribute to anti-submarine operations in the North Atlantic and Tomahawk land attack missile tasking for Middle East missions, assist in bilateral defense operations with Israel, presence patrols in the Baltic and Black Seas, and maritime security patrols in Southern European and African waters. The Navy’s decision to advocate for an increased presence in Europe was prescient, as the rest of the DOD only came to this recognition after Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea in 2014 and had to spend billions of dollars to replace the equipment of the departed two ABCTs. As events have evolved, the destroyers have been even more valuable than expected, providing power projection capability against Russian provocations as well.

Forward-stationed forces like these destroyers in Rota are different than forward-deployed ships, and they have a number of benefits that are not applicable to the destroyers that rotate from U.S. ports on (notionally) six-month deployments. The forward-stationed destroyers provide the regional U.S. Navy commanders with excellent opportunities for developing personal relationships with host-nation and regional military leaders (especially in Japan, Korea and Spain). The homeport facilities in Rota allow for increased regional stockpiling of naval ammunition, spare parts and fuel. Having the same ships persistently in these waters provides for improved understanding of atmospheric and underwater conditions which is critical to maximizing sensor and weapons performance.

Most importantly, the forward stationing allows for increased availability of warships for a short or limited deployment. The normal lifecycle for a destroyer in the Optimized Fleet Response Plan is about 50% in training and maintenance phases and 50% in deployment and sustainment phases (with a notional 20% on deployment for ships homeported in U.S.). As such, the Navy attempts to have five destroyers from the East Coast fill one deployment slot in Europe, although this math can be disrupted by maintenance, training and operational snafus. So, while a forward-deployed destroyer from Norfolk may be immediately (i.e. less than a week) available and on station for a crisis in European theater about 20% of the time, a forward-stationed ship from Rota is available for a crisis at least 50% of the time and even higher if some training is completed early.

So as the Navy places more ships in Rota, many fewer ships from the U.S. East Coast homeports of Norfolk, Va., and Mayport, Fla., are required to meet U.S. EUCOM’s request for destroyers. 

While ships from Norfolk and Jacksonville may not go to the Pacific instead of European theater, they can now fill a much higher percentage of Middle East and South America deployments — freeing up West Coast ships for the Pacific theater.

These West Coast ships can then contribute to an increase in the forces available for deployment to the Western Pacific to deter President Xi Jinping’s provocations and, if deterrence fails, defeat his aggression.

Who would have thought it — the U.S. Navy stationing ships in Europe makes the force more ready to face China in the Pacific.

Rear Adm. (Ret.) Mark Montgomery is a senior director at the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He directs CSC 2.0, which works to implement the recommendations of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, where he previously served as executive director. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCMontgomery. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy