Euro-BMD ships will get full range of missions

Exercises, partnerships, pirate-fighting -- America's forward-deployed destroyers won't just protect Europe from ballistic missiles.

The four U.S. destroyers to be forward-deployed to Rota, Spain will take the full spectrum of tasking in addition to their primary mission of ballistic missile defense for the Continent, the top U.S. commander there said Wednesday.

Adm James Stavridis told the House Armed Services Committee that the ships would work as much for his fellow witness, Africa Command boss Gen. Carter Ham, as they would for EuCom. He said they could fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, continue the Navy’s trend of partnering with African navies, and do exercises and port visits in the Mediterranean.

Stavridis’ characterization means several things: The ships will deploy with their full crews and complements of weapons and gear, not skeleton crews and only  interceptor missiles. It means that some or most of their time underway will not be spent steaming in a box with the radars energized, looking for a launch. Instead these crews will theoretically become experts in the Med and African waters the way the Army wants its brigades to develop “regional alignment” with specific slices of the map.

The details emerged amid questions from Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman, who sounded perfectly sanguine about the planned deployments, even though they’ll involve three Norfolk ships and one from Naval Station Mayport, Fla. For as much as Virginia and Florida have battled over the disposition of ships between the two of them, both delegations have so far been silent over losing the destroyers to Spain — maybe because it’s still so far off they don’t take it seriously. When the Navy actually requests funding to move the ships, crews and families, however, it may kick up a little more dust.

A few lawmakers are already irked with the amounts of money the U.S. will continue to spend on Europe. Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman asked Stavridis how many American troops would remain on the Continent after commanders withdraw about 12,000, as now envisioned. That would leave about 68,000, he was told. We should look at taking them all out, Coffman said — is there a NATO treaty requirement that Americans be based in Europe? No there is not, Stavridis answered, although he supports the relationships and strategic value of having a presence there.

HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon also questioned the ongoing U.S. priorities toward Europe in his opening statement.

“I’m worried about the decisions being made for the ‘sake of efficiencies and budget’ that change our force posture in Europe but neglect our commitment to regional allies and stability,” he said. “I also want to highlight my continuing concerns about President Obama’s missile defense strategy. It appears the United States is spending $4 on regional missile defense, like the European Phased Adaptive Approach, for every $1 it is spending on homeland defense. What’s more, European missile defense will be a ‘national contribution’ to NATO, meaning the cost will be borne entirely by the U.S. at a time when most of NATO is failing to meet even the 2% of GDP threshold for NATO membership.”

Depending on the way you measure it, as few as four NATO members and as many as eight — of 28 nations — are meeting their commitments to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense, Stavridis said. He told lawmakers he tells the Euro-allies every chance he gets that they need to step it up, because there’s no guarantee for how much longer the U.S. can backstop the alliance.

That messaging is popular in Washington, but don’t look for it to sink in — the best case for Europe’s economy in the near term is a weak recession. With an earth-shaking worst case, and an international scramble for the exits in Afghanistan, the U.S. may have to count itself lucky if NATO even maintains its status quo.