12 May 2016
A U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system at Naval Support Facility Deveselu, Romania, Thursday, May 12, 2016
DEVESELU, Romania - The U.S. and NATO declared their missile interceptor system here ready for operations on Thursday while attempting to reassure Russia it is not the target. "Missile defense is for defense," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. "It is purely defensive."
Stoltenberg joined Romania's prime minister, Dacian Ciolos, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work at a U.S. Navy base near rural Deveselu, where 24 SM-3 missiles are now loaded in launchers for use against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Thursday's ceremony formally certifies the site for operations. The site is expected to be formally designated for NATO use at the alliance summit in Warsaw this summer.
The U.S. says the system, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, is a necessary defense against Iranian ballistic missiles that could target European cities or American bases. But Russia has long criticized it as a potential threat to its own missiles and a disruption of the regional strategic balance.
The issue has been a constant irritant in relations between Russia and the West since the system was announced in 2002. Officials at Thursday's ceremony repeatedly tried to defuse Russian concerns.
"This site in Romania - as well as the one in Poland - is not directed against Russia," Stoltenberg said. "The interceptors are too few, and located too far south or too close to Russia, to be able to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles."
NATO's official position is that the system is intended to defend Europe against unspecified countries in Asia and the Middle East possessing missile technology.
But Russian officials insisted the system poses a threat to their country.
Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, defense committee chairman in the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency the missile defense system was "a direct threat to us."
Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, said "measures are being taken to maintain Russia's security at the necessary, level," the Tass news agency reported.
Stoltenberg said that although Russia terminated dialogue on the issue in 2013, NATO hoped to continue discussions.
Work reiterated that the system was defensive and meant to protect the alliance from any ballistic missile threat.
"This is not about Russia. This is about the collective self-defense of the alliance," Work told a subsequent news conference. "If we take actions to deter Russia, we say that is what we're doing and we say why."
The U.S., he said, had repeatedly offered to show the Russians the technical specifications so they would understand the system's capabilities and that it does not propose a strategic threat.
The base marks the first time the Navy has installed its Aegis weapon system - an advanced missile-tracking and guidance system routinely built into Navy warships - onto a ground site. Much of the Deveselu system is housed in a large deckhouse that mimics the superstructure of a ship. The missiles are located miles away.
The installation is located in rural southern Romania, on the grounds of a former Romanian air base, part of which the U.S. Navy has turned into a support facility for more than 100 personnel. Horse-pulled carriages remain a common sight in the region.
The Deveselu site is one part of the larger EPAA system, which is being constructed by the U.S. for NATO use. Other components include four Navy guided-missile destroyers based in Rota, Spain; an early warning radar system in Turkey; and a command center at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany.
Groundwork on a second ground-based interceptor site in Poland is slated to begin Friday. Plans call for the site in Redzikowo to be operational by the end of 2018.
Romania and Poland both see a benefit in hosting strategic American hardware and assets, especially after Russia's intervention in Ukraine. The base contains a small, permanent presence of U.S. forces at a time when eastern European and Baltic nations are pushing for more NATO forces on their soil.
Ciolos told reporters his country did not need to answer Russian criticism for hosting the U.S. site.
"It is legitimate for any country to allocate its resources to defend itself," he said.