By Dan Williams
ABOARD USS HIGGINS, Mediterranean Sea (Reuters) - He is trained to hunt submarines or pirates, launch Tomahawk cruise missiles at coastal targets and shoot down attacking planes. He can also enforce naval blockades and rescue vessels in distress.
Yet, on his first Mediterranean tour, Cmdr Carl Meuser may have another mission in mind, the kind the U.S. Navy has long performed off North Korea and Japan -- strategic air defense.
Iran has girded its disputed nuclear project with long-range missiles. Israel and Washington's Arab allies are nervous. The Obama administration wants talks with Tehran, but is quietly shoring up the diplomacy with means for military containment.
So Meuser cites no specific Middle Eastern adversaries when showing a Reuters crew his destroyer, USS Higgins, one of 18 American ships deployed globally with Aegis interceptor systems capable of blowing up ballistic missiles above the atmosphere.
"Regardless of the threat, regardless of the territory that we are trying to defend, based on our national interest, we can cover a large area," he said.
According to a regional map issued last month by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, a Mediterranean-based Aegis could cover southern Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and north Egypt in the event of a missile war. Another ship, deployed in the Gulf, would similarly protect local Arab states.
"Being ship-based, it also gives us more flexibility and gives our leadership more flexibility in that we can go places a lot more simply and folks at the embassies don't have to spend as much time getting clearance," Meuser said.
"We just kind of show up 12 miles off the coast and we're in international waters."
For Israel, where Higgins docked this week, Aegis is an especially close asset. Israel already hosts a U.S. strategic radar, X-band, and its Arrow II missile interceptor, which is partly underwritten by Washington, is inter-operable with Aegis.
Arrow designer Uzi Rubin said Aegis could be brought into line with Israel's air defenses "at the flick of a switch."
"I think it is very important that the United States make Aegis ships available should there be an attack by Iran, with their firepower joining our firepower," he said, echoing fears that Iranian nuclear warheads could one day be used against the Jewish state, although Tehran denies having hostile designs.
But some Israelis have voiced concern at the degree to which their country may grow beholden to American military largesse.
Assumed to have the region's only atomic arsenal, Israel has hinted it might strike Iran preemptively. Any such unilateral action could be circumscribed by the presence of U.S. forces whose ties to Israel would mark them out for Iranian reprisals.
Israel is also reluctant to rely too heavily on Aegis ships, which are unlikely to carry more than two dozen of the costly SM-3 interceptor missiles and could thus, in theory, be stumped by a big salvo from Iran or its ally Syria.
Pointing to Higgins's 90 pre-loaded launch tubes, Meuser said: "Even if you filled them up with the $10 million missiles -- that's a lot of money -- then you're still going to have a limited amount, so you would need to have more ships come in."
Robert Hewson, a combat systems analyst with Jane's Information Group, said such reinforcement would be unfeasible for any protracted face-off between Israel and its arch-foes.
"I don't think the United States can afford to provide the number of ships and assets required to provide 365-day coverage for Israel," he said.
Thrift is one selling point behind the Israeli-U.S. plan to develop an upgraded Arrow III by the middle of next decade, with a projected price of $2.4 million for its interceptor missiles.
Yet the Pentagon has also shown interest in a land-based version of SM-3, which could be offered to Israel either as a stop-gap or an alternative to Arrow, with the added domestic boon of diverting funds to its American manufacturer, Raytheon.
Despite the protectionist instincts on both sides, Rubin said professional considerations would keep Arrow III on track.
"The question is what's easier: to take a foreign-designed missile across the barriers of sovereignty and proprietary rights and somehow integrate it into our system, or to do it in-house? To do it in-house is cheaper and faster," he said.
Raytheon says the "ashore" SM-3, due out in 2013, may also be considered by the Pentagon for Europe, where it could play a role with or without a missile defense deployment that former U.S. President George W. Bush had proposed in Poland and the Czech Republic and which has been fiercely opposed by Russia.
"As Navy guys, we are going to have plenty of work to keep us busy. So if the Army comes up with a better answer for how to do this (missile defense), then that's fine. I can tell you that Aegis is not the answer to everybody's problems," Meuser said.
"But right now we do have a good capability. We are mobile, and we are on-scene ... so at least we can influence events."
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)