DEFENSE

US seeking to add two destroyers, 600 extra personnel to Spanish naval base

The plan, which will not be finalized until Spain has a government in place, would see a 50% rise in the number of people stationed in Rota, Cádiz, as well as a reform of the relevant treaty

Caretaker Defense Minister Margarita Robles during a visit to Spanish troops in Sicily.
Caretaker Defense Minister Margarita Robles during a visit to Spanish troops in Sicily.Javier Lizón / EFE

The United States government wants to increase its military presence at the Spanish naval base in Rota, Cádiz by 50%. The move would reinforce the role of the facility in southwestern Spain as the main US naval base in the south of Europe. The proposal, according to military and diplomatic sources, involves upping the number of Arleigh Burke class destroyers from four to six, as well as replacing the current vessels with more modern types, complete with helicopters. Should the plan go ahead, it would involve a further 600 military personnel being stationed there, as well as an obligatory reform of the relevant bilateral agreement between Spain and the US, which dates from 1988 and has already been modified on three occasions.

The aim of the US Navy is to count on a complete squadron of destroyers in Rota

According to military sources, the aim of the US Navy is to count on a complete squadron of destroyers in Rota and to ensure that the so-called Forward Deployed Naval Forces-Europe (FDNF-E) has at its disposal four operative units at all times, given that two are usually immobilized for programmed maintenance or repairs.

The naval base in Rota has more than enough capacity to accommodate two more vessels. And for the public shipyard Navantia, which is responsible for regular maintenance at the naval base, it would mean an increased workload, the same sources explain.

Government sources explain that while the plan has been examined from a technical point of view, it has not yet been addressed in the political sphere. Spain has seen two inconclusive general elections this year, and talks are ongoing among political parties to form a government. The Socialist Party (PSOE) is currently running a caretaker administration and its leader, Pedro Sánchez, is the most likely candidate to be voted back in as prime minister by Congress. Until an administration is in place, negotiations for the changes at Rota will not begin, the same sources say.

The government is, however, willing to accept the substitution of the four destroyers that arrived in Rota during 2014 and 2015 – the USS Carney, the USS Donald Cook, the USS Porter and the USS Ross – for more modern ships, which will begin to arrive on a staggered basis from the coming year until 2022.

Unlike their predecessors, the new vessels will each be equipped with a Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk helicopter

Unlike their predecessors, the new vessels will each be equipped with a Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk, meaning that Rota will also be home to a squadron of naval helicopters. While these units are not included among the 12 that are cited in the appendix to the current bilateral agreement, which details all of the authorizations of usage granted to the US at its bases in Rota and Morón de la Frontera (Seville), the government is basing this inclusion on legal reports, which state that the helicopters form part of the provision of the vessels and are implicitly included in the deal. These reports conclude that it is not necessary to alter the deal nor submit it to parliament for approval, although Congress will be informed of the change. In any event, the same sources add, the limit of US personnel authorized on the Cádiz base will not be exceeded: 4,250 military personnel and 1,000 civilians.

That said, the arrival of two more destroyers will require changes to be made to the agreement, in order to increase the number of vessels it covers, and raise the personnel limit. Given that the treaty is an international one, it will require the authorization of Congress, as was the case with previous reforms, in 2002 – to include information services from the Marines and the Air Force – in 2012 – the four destroyers – and 2015 – the Marines rapid-reaction force.

Spain’s caretaker prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, pointed to the country’s participation in international missions – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Mali – as well as the cession of the Rota and Morón de la Frontera bases. This was during the brief conversation that he had with President Donald Trump during a reception held by the Queen of England on December 3 for attendees of the NATO summit in London. Trump softened his criticism of Spain’s scant investment in defense (0.92% of GDP), although he did voice a generic warning that countries who didn’t meet the objective of allocating 2% of GDP to military spending would end up paying that bill in the form of tariffs.

The US destroyers in Rota form part of the NATO missile defense system to deal with a potential attack by Iran or North Korea

The US destroyers in Rota form part of the NATO missile defense system to deal with a potential attack by Iran or North Korea. They also serve other purposes, both unilaterally and for US allies, such as patrolling the Black Sea as a deterrent for Russia, or intervening in the conflict in Syria. In April 2017, the USS Porter and the USS Ross launched cruise missiles against military installations in Damascus as a reprisal for the use of chemical weapons by the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

In a letter revealed by EL PAÍS to his opposite number in Spain, Margarita Robles, the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper gave thanks in September to the country for “accommodating the United States forces present at the Morón and Rota bases,” as well as for Spanish cooperation in NATO and the coalition against the so-called Islamic State. “I hope to broaden our cooperation to move forward in terms of peace and global security,” he added.

In a gesture toward the allies, the government has extended the presence of a battery of Patriot missiles in the southeast of Turkey for six months to deal with a possible attack from the regime in Damascus. Militarily, the mission no longer serves a purpose given that there has been no threat for some time, and Italy has withdrawn its battery without France relieving it, leaving Spain alone. However, the Spanish Patriot missiles allow NATO to keep the mission alive, and sustain that it is maintaining its solidarity with Turkey, despite the profound differences between the allies over the latter country’s invasion in the north of Syria.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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