On Jan. 31, a United States guided missile destroyer called the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) departed Norfolk Naval Base bound for Rota, Spain. Cruising at 20 knots, this would be an eight-day voyage, putting the Cook in port in Spain right about now.

But the USS Donald Cook is no ordinary destroyer. And this is no ordinary mission.

Lafayette, we are here
In fact, the Cook is a very special kind of guided missile destroyer. It’s the first of four of America’s “DDGs” to be outfitted with a new version of the Aegis anti-aircraft defense system, specially designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. And it represents the vanguard of America’s new Europe-based Ballistic Missile Defense — a $22 billion, decades-long project to defend against missile strikes from a nuclear-armed Iran.

Ship-borne ballistic missile defense test-firing aboard the USS Hopper (DDG 70) near Hawaii. Photo:Wikimedia Commons.

In a few months, the destroyer USS Ross (DDG-71) will join Cook in Spain. Two more ships, the USS Carney (DDG-64) and USS Porter (DDG-78), will double their strength in 2015. Once all are arrived, Cook and her three sister ships will base themselves out of Rota — a major Spanish naval base just northwest of Cadiz (and for history buffs, not far from the site of Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar).

“Battle of Trafalgara,” painting by William Lionel Wyllie, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Based out of Rota, these four vessels will run rotating patrol assignments — two ships on patrol, two in port. Combined with a pair of on-land anti-ballistic missile defense sites to be built in Romania and Poland, Cook will constitute a permanent presence in Europe, guaranteeing the continent’s safety against missile strikes by rogue regimes.

Extending an “Aegis” over Europe
In Greek mythology, “Aegis” was the name of Athena’s shield, forged by Hephaestus and used by Perseus as a defense against the gorgon Medusa. In modern times, Aegis may prove even more important — extending a missile shield over Europe, and preventing America from being held hostage to threats against its allies. It’s of great importance to U.S. defense contractors as well, representing a multibillion-dollar revenue stream.

Most of the biggest defense companies play a role in Aegis. Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) designed the system, and will be paid close to $900 million to outfit destroyers with Aegis systems, and to set up Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System, or AAMDS, bases in Romania and Poland. Raytheon (NYSE: RTN  ) builds the SM-3 IB and IIA interceptor missiles that form the point of Aegis’ “spear” (to mix metaphors a bit) — projects worth upwards of $3.5 billion to the company. Alliant Techsystems (NYSE: ATK  )  plays a smaller role building the rocket engines that power the interceptors — but even this small part is worth tens of millions of dollars to ATK.

Defensive investments at risk
All of these companies have vested interests in seeing Aegis succeed, and proceed to installation. But not everyone is happy about Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, and it could yet get derailed by political concerns. Iran is of course particularly unenthused about the plan. But in Russia, too, paranoia about the missile defense shield runs high, with President Vladimir Putin warning that Aegis BMD “is a significant component of a strategic offensive potential.”

In the Russian Duma, foreign affairs committee Chairman Alexei Pushkov has called Aegis a “fake” defensive system. At the Foreign Ministry, diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov has threatened “withdrawal from the [START nuclear arms reduction] treaty” unless Aegis BMD is abandoned.

For the time being, it looks like the U.S. is still going full speed ahead with Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense. But if the Russians get their way, billions of dollars’ worth of ongoing and planned defense contracts could grind to a halt — and Europe would remain defenseless against the threat of ballistic missile attack.

USS Donald Cook and sister ships, transiting the Atlantic. Photo: U.S. Navy.