DEVESELU AIR BASE, Romania - Top U.S., Romanian and NATO officials broke ground Monday on a new ballistic missile defense facility being built to boost regional stability and strengthen the alliance's collective security stance.
The high-profile ceremony signaled the start of construction for the Aegis Ashore complex, the second stage of the three-part European Phased Adaptive Approach to ballistic missile defense. It follows the September 2011 accord between the United States and Romania to establish a site here for land-based SM-3 interceptors. The U.S. facility is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2015.
Romanian President Traian Basescu, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, Romanian Minister of National Defense Mircea Dusa, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose and Vice Adm. James D. Syring, the Missile Defense Agency director, were among the senior leaders at Monday's groundbreaking event.
"This is a historic occasion," Vershbow told the audience. "Missile threats to alliance territory and populations are real and growing. NATO's defense against these threats must be real, too. And it must be able to grow and adapt as the threat evolves. That's the approach we are taking at NATO."
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District is managing the project. A Romanian contractor, SC Glacial PROD SRL, conducted site-activation work in advance totaling $3.3 million. It constructed temporary facilities on the base, including offices, container housing units, a warehouse and vehicle inspection area. In July, USACE awarded a $134 million contract to KBR Inc., which will cover all construction, security fencing and storage, infrastructure maintenance and support services for Aegis Ashore.
Europe District officials said a contract for the construction of Navy support facilities and infrastructure could be awarded in early 2014.
Col. Peter Helmlinger, the Europe District commander, presented USACE's traditional groundbreaking plaque to Rear Adm. Jack Scorby, commander of Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia.
"A groundbreaking ceremony symbolizes the partnership among the organizations that will be coordinating on a project," Helmlinger said. "The No. 1 priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and chief of engineers is to support (Combatant Commands) and warfighters. ... Our role is critical, along with our partners, to ensure the success of this project."
Officials say the U.S. and its European NATO allies face a growing threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles, particularly from the Middle East. Global trends indicate the systems are becoming more flexible, mobile, durable, reliable and accurate, while also increasing in range. Regional actors continue to develop long-range missiles that can threaten the U.S. and Europe.
"The facility here in Deveselu will be a crucial component in building up NATO's overall ballistic missile defense system," Vershbow said. "This will make the NATO system more robust [and] increase its level of coverage. And it will enhance the level of protection the alliance can provide."
The European Phased Adaptive Approach allows for flexibility based on technological advances and the evolution of ballistic-missile threats, U.S. defense officials said.
Two years ago, the Phase I completion featured the deployment of Aegis BMD-capable ships in the Mediterranean equipped with SM-3 interceptors, as well as a missile-defense radar based in Turkey. The U.S. is targeting sometime in 2018 for the third phase, which sets up an Aegis Ashore site in Poland.
In addition, Aegis BMD ships will be forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, starting next year. They'll be available to support NATO missile-defense capabilities in crisis situations.
"Our commitment to EPAA is ironclad, and I look forward to seeing the completion of the system in the coming years," Miller said.
The land-based ballistic missile defense capability in Romania will rely on a system almost identical to that used on Navy Aegis-capable guided-missile destroyers and cruisers. It's designed to detect, track, engage and destroy ballistic missiles in flight.
The BMD facility at Deveselu sits on about 430 acres. The site will consist of a fire-control radar deckhouse with an associated Aegis command, control and communications suite. Separately, it will house several launch modules containing SM-3 missiles.
"This is a major project, and it will take a concerted effort in the next two years to finish strong," Helmlinger said. "We need great people to accomplish the project. Teamwork is absolutely essential to accomplish this mission. We all have to work on the common objective of project delivery that produces this facility on time, on budget, transparently and safely. … The Corps of Engineers is committed to delivering state-of-the-art construction projects for our service members worldwide -- and especially here in Europe."
About 200 U.S. military personnel, government civilians and support contractors will be required to operate the Aegis Ashore complex, according to Defense Department estimates.
BMD cooperation helps feed NATO's mutual security efforts and forms part of a broader response to counter potential dangers, U.S. officials said. The mission's global nature and demand it places on American forces drive the need to bolster missile-defense relationships and seek burden-sharing arrangements with partners and allies.
"Today's groundbreaking ceremony is pivotal as we move forward with our ballistic missile defense capability," Scorby said. "We'll be working very closely with our Romanian counterparts to ensure they have the proper infrastructure, resources and security to make sure we bring our Aegis Ashore capability to bear. … Geographically speaking, this is a great location to defend against any threats that might be out there."
Close collaboration will be critical in bringing the Romania project to completion -- from the strategic bilateral partners and USACE managers to the contractors carrying out the labor, the admiral said.
"We will all work together toward that common ground of ensuring we have a ballistic missile defense system on time and ready to defend Europe's interests," he said.
The placement of Aegis Ashore at Deveselu also represents a major milestone in the deepening strategic bilateral partnership between the U.S. and Romania, Miller said. The two nations served together in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their armed forces routinely participate in military exercises and engagements as well.
"Romania has evolved into one of our most reliable and steadfast partners ... and increasingly, a country that can export security around the world," the undersecretary added. "We see great potential in further building this relationship."
Basescu praised his nation's strong defense bond with the United States but said Monday's ceremony had a deeper significance for Romanians.
"It means Romania is now integrated into the overall systems of NATO," he said. "This base will also prove we have the capabilities to protect European and American citizens from the real threat of ballistic missiles. ... Today, I have the feeling of a job completed."
MDA's Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System has proven effective through repeated testing. Since January 2002, it's been successful in 28 of 34 intercept flight tests, according to U.S. officials.