On Thursday, the U.S. switched on an $800 million missile defense system in Romania, the latest addition to an umbrella that is supposed to guard the U.S. and Europe from missiles launched outside the Euro-Atlantic area.
The system, dubbed Aegis Ashore, is derived from the Aegis missile defense system deployed by the U.S. Navy. The installation at the Deveselu air base in southern Romania is the first use of the weapon on land.
The Aegis system fires SM-3 missiles that can shoot down short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The defensive weapon became the backbone of President Obama’s so-called Phased Adaptive Approach for missile defense after he rejected the George W. Bush administration's planned bilateral deployment of a different system to Poland and the Czech Republic.
The Romanian installation, which will host 24 SM-3 missiles and be operated by NATO, is the first land-based defensive missile launcher in Europe. It will link up with other cogs of the alliance’s defensive shield, including a command-and-control center in Germany, a radar site in Turkey and four ships based out of Spain that can fire their own SM-3s.
Even though the missile shield has been in the works for several years – work at the Romania site began in 2013, according to a U.S. Navy press release – and the U.S. and NATO insist that it is a check against potential Iranian aggression, Russia has gone ballistic, rhetorically, about the installation coming online.
"This is not a defense system. This is part of U.S. nuclear strategic potential brought onto a periphery. In this case, Eastern Europe is such periphery," Russia President Vladimir Putin said Friday.
"Until now, those taking such decisions have lived in calm, fairly well-off and in safety. Now, as these elements of ballistic missile defense are deployed, we are forced to think how to neutralize emerging threats to the Russian Federation," he added.
With another Aegis site in Poland slated to become operational in 2018, the missile shield promises to remain a nettlesome issue for Washington and Moscow well into the next presidential administration. There is the possibility that, like Obama, a new commander-in-chief could direct the Defense Department to go back to the drawing board to come up with a new scheme for the umbrella or scrap it altogether, but that seems unlikely given Russia’s aggressive behavior toward Europe that last two years.
Tensions have been high ever since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, with many countries in the region worried that their territory could be gobbled up next. In response, the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2017 budget request asks for $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative. That would quadruple the amount of money for the effort which is meant to cover the costs of sending hundreds of U.S. troops in and out of Europe for brief deployments, military exercises with allies and other training missions.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, continues to flash its military might in unexpected ways. Last month two unarmed Russia warplanes flew several simulated attack passes on a U.S. destroyer, coming within a few feet of the ship.
On Thursday, British Typhoon fighters intercepted three Russian military transport aircraft approaching the Baltic States.