The first of four of the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) destroyers equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system arrived in Spain on Tuesday as part of NATO’s plan for protecting Europe from the proliferation of ballistic missile in the Middle East.

The USS Donald Cook arriving in Rota, Spain. Photo: U.S. Navy
The USS Donald Cook arriving in Rota, Spain. Photo: U.S. Navy

USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) ported at Naval Station Rota to join the U.S. Sixth Fleet and mark the beginning of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) adopted by Washington and its NATO allies for protecting Europe from missile threats–namely from Iran. The Cook will be joined by a second guided-missile destroyer this year and two more in 2015.

The Navy ship carries the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which can identify, track, target and take out an enemy missile with Raytheon’s [RTN] SM-3 interceptor. The sea-based system is one of the more proven missile defense capabilities developed by the Pentagon.

The NATO plan calls for installing a land-based version of Aegis, known as Aegis Ashore, in Romania by 2015 as part of the second phase of the EPAA.

In addition to missile defense, the four vessels will participate in maritime security, training exercises with the Spanish Navy, and other NATO operations and deployments, the Navy said.

“These destroyers will help ensure we are here with our friends and allies when it counts, not just in the right place at the right time, but all the time,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said.

The EPAA was adopted by NATO during the 2010 alliance summit in Lisbon, Portugal. The Obama administration developed the approach to replace the Bush White House’s plans to deploy long-range, ground-based ballistic missile interceptors in Poland, a policy that drew a sharp rebuke from Moscow.

The Kremlin, however, has also criticized the EPAA, saying it–like the long-range interceptor plan–marginalizes its strategic nuclear deterrent. The United States has maintained that the EPAA is not designed to counter a nuclear strike from Russia, but to fend off threats originating in the Middle East.