With the shift in priorities to the Pacific and the Arabian Gulf outlined in the president’s new Defense Strategy Guidance, it is critical for the US to operationalize its international partnerships in order to further our national interests. With growing fiscal constraints faced by the United States military, we must call on historic allies and partners, especially those in Europe, to assume innovative roles as security producers.

Former Secretary of Defense Gates made this point very clear in his farewell address to NATO last year, challenging our allies to improve their own defense capabilities and those of the Alliance. The United States has implemented the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) for ballistic missile defense (BMD) of Europe, a critical capability for NATO and the US. But up until now, it’s been a US-only show: BMD-capable Aegis destroyers on patrol in the eastern Mediterranean, along with the development of US-built “Aegis-ashore” stations planned for ground facilities on the Continent. Other than hosting American technology, where has Europe been involved in its BMD security? How do we get the Europeans in EPAA?

The answer might be found in two small NATO nations showing capability and will. The Netherlands and Denmark have highly developed naval platforms with advanced air warfare capabilities, benefiting the expansion of sea-based ballistic missile defense as part of EPAA. They also display political will by advancing the required defense spending for BMD investments among parliaments and constituents.

Three Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates from Denmark and four De Zeven Provinciën-class frigates from the Netherlands share the latest-generation SMART-L long range surveillance radar and the APAR phased-array radar systems. Initial studies conducted with the United States concluded that, with certain modifications, these radar systems could conduct BMD tracking and intercept missions, on par with current Aegis systems. The Netherlands is pursuing investments of around 250 million Euros for the required technology upgrades. Even during the European financial crisis and planned defense reductions, the Dutch government received approval from their Parliament earlier this year for the naval upgrade expenditures. Denmark is positive about the upgrade potential and observing results from the work of its Dutch NATO ally. The US should seize this opportunity to engage Copenhagen on BMD capabilities development and make it an interagency effort; the classic military-to-military relationship among Alliance members will not drive political decision-making, especially in the current fiscal environment.

Why make the effort?

Enhancing the afloat BMD network with Denmark and the Netherlands would kick-start a burden sharing foothold for European missile defense. The Danes and Dutch combined could provide seven BMD-capable platforms, nearly twice the number that the US Navy will homeport in Rota, Spain. These two nations could participate early on within the EPAA framework as a “beta-test” for the eventual European participation within a NATO layered missile defense system.

The US should lean forward to integrate these nations at the earliest opportunity into training and exercising sensor-to-shooter processes, as well as a US-Dutch-and Danish command and control architecture as a first step toward NATO. Denmark and the Netherlands could also train and exercise with other navies facing a ballistic missile threat, potentially Gulf Cooperation Council nations or Asian partners.

Finally, early employment of Danish and Dutch frigates into EPAA would allow additional flexibility for the US Navy, faced with the current challenge of capabilities versus capacity. American warships are built as multi-mission assets. While missile defense for Europe is a significant requirement for the US military, the American ships based in Rota inherently provide robust capabilities for other missions and could be assigned accordingly should those tasks become a higher priority.

Europe must be prepared for such a contingency. Early integration is not just a smart hedge, but the kick-start for enduring operations. When more partners are ready to assume the BMD watch, all are strengthened.

This is smart defense for the Alliance, and a true example of operationalized partnerships for the US. Europe has nations on the precipice to become active partners within the BMD shield now. The task for the United States is to encourage and assist key allies to make that concept a reality.

Commander Michael Hannan is the US Navy senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of US Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.