The Obama administration and the Spanish government have agreed to base Aegis Cruisers on Spain's coast, as part of the anti-ballistic missile defense system to protect Europe against a potential Iranian nuclear threat, officials said Wednesday.
The plan will make it easier to maintain a continuous naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, and also provide security in the eastern Atlantic.
"This announcement should send a very strong signal that the U.S. is still continuing to invest in this alliance and that we're committed to defense relationship with Europe even as we face budget constraints at home," Panetta said at a ceremony attended by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
"In this challenging fiscal environment partnerships like NATO are even more essential to protecting our common interests," Panetta said.
The two nations agreed to base the ships at Naval Station Rota, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Gibraltar. The port has served as a principal overseas base for the U.S. Navy since the early 1950s.
The move comes just seven months after the Pentagon sent the USS Monterey, a special radar-equipped warship, to the Mediterranean, marking the first of the administration's four-phase plan to put land- and sea-based radars and interceptors in several European locations over the next decade.
Developed to protect Europe from a potential Iranian nuclear threat in 2009, the broad missile defense shield was approved by NATO last November.
Under the arrangement, a limited system of U.S. anti-missile interceptors and radars already planned for Europe _ to include interceptors in Romania and Poland and radar in Turkey _ would be linked to expanded European-owned missile defenses. That would create a broad system that protects every NATO country against medium-range missile attack.
NATO says the cost of the system would be relatively cheap when spread across the entire 28-nation alliance _ euro200 million euros, or about $260 million, over 10 years. But critics contend that's still a big pricetag for Europe, suffering from a debt crisis that has forced governments to raise taxes, cut services and slash civil servant salaries.
NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen declined said the missile defense program remains on track to achieve interim operational capability by May next year, when alliance heads of state will meet in Chicago.
"As regards full operational capability ... we would expect it to be fully operational by 2018," Fogh Rasmussen said.
The plan has drawn opposition from Russia, which worries the system could target Russian warheads or undermine their deterrence strategy. Moscow is demanding to jointly run the system, while NATO is offering more limited cooperation between the Russian and Western anti-missile systems.