With Russia and China causing concern, the US and Iceland are strengthening their ties – and their firepower.
In a small, claustrophobic briefing room in the down-at-heel operations building at Keflavík air base in Iceland, US airforce pilot Major Tim Dunagan stands in front of a whiteboard covered in scribbled co-ordinates, going over the day’s training exercise. “So you’ve got us – Blue Air, the good guys – over here,” he says, gesturing toward a group of blue squiggles on the whiteboard, meant to indicate the positions of two US f-15c Eagle jets. “And then here you have what we call Red Air – the bad guys – who outnumber us.” He points to a smattering of red marks hovering around the blue squiggles on the board. “We’ve got to know immediately what to do in such a scenario.”
Why are the bad guys red? “Well, what other colour are you going to use for the big bad Russian bear?” asks Maj Dunagan, a wide grin spreading across his face. He may be teasing but as one of 222 US airmen taking part in the six-week Nato mission here in Iceland, his remark is more than a winking nod to a past – and, once again, potential – adversary.
Maj Dunagan’s whiteboard scribblings aside, the real training doesn’t take place in the briefing room: it takes place in the sky. Keflavík base sits on the Reykjanes peninsula, about 50km southwest of Reykjavík. Outside the operations building and across the air base, a team of maintenance personnel tend to two of the six F-15CS here, sitting in a row of concrete aircraft hangars that protect the crew from the frigid wind whipping across the mostly barren landscape. The atmosphere is laidback: banter and teasing nicknames are lobbed back and forth all day long. (One high-spirited young pilot’s helmet is marked with the letters FNG. “It stands for Fucking New Guy,” he says proudly.) But they are all focused on their task. Each day the aircraft need to be prepped and ready to go at a moment’s notice, not only to complete the training exercises but also to take part in regular air surveillance to safeguard Icelandic airspace.
Iceland, which was a vital but often overlooked strategic point during the Cold War, has a bit of a Russia problem. Authorities protested in September 2016 after three Russian Tupolev Tu-160 bombers flew too close to a civilian aircraft taking off from Keflavík (a spokesman for Russia’s ambassador in Reykjavík told local papers that the fuss was unjustified and was a case of “the old Russian bogey brought to life again”). It’s not just the skies that are a cause for concern: in recent years Russia has also been adding naval bases in the Arctic Circle, which has improved its capabilities to potentially send submarines through the giuk gap (a point in the ocean where Greenland, Iceland and the UK form a naval chokehold) and access the North Atlantic. And as the US airforce’s Nato mission was under way at Keflavík, Russia and Belarus launched a large-scale joint military exercise, called Zapad-2017, that Iceland’s foreign minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson tells us is a concern “not only for Iceland but for the security of Nato allies and Europe”.
Up until just over a decade ago, the US would have been on the ground to help year-round. “It’s ebbed and flowed but we’ve long had a naval and airforce presence within Iceland,” says Major General Jon “JB” Kelk, who has arrived at Keflavík from the US airforce base at Ramstein, Germany. “This is a very geostrategically important place. It has been for some time and its value will probably continue to grow, given the importance of the Arctic.”
The US first established a military presence in Iceland during the Second World War, though they withdrew all forces once the war ended. Yet anxiety over the Soviet Union prompted Iceland, which hasn’t had its own military since 1869, to enter into a joint-defence agreement with the US in 1951. Throughout the Cold War thousands of US troops were stationed at the US-built Naval Air Station Keflavík, where they tracked Soviet submarines and aircraft. After the Soviet Union collapsed and worry over the country waned, the US decided it was time to go – by 2006 the last US aircraft had left the country.
Now experts are wondering if that relationship is ramping up once again. Since 2008 the US has been conducting regular air surveillance missions in Iceland under Nato (Iceland is a founding member) and since 2014, periodic US deployments for submarine surveillance around Iceland’s coast have increased. More telling, however, was the 2016 joint defence agreement the two countries signed, which re-emphasised previous agreements and sealed a commitment to rotational and periodic deployments of US forces in Iceland. The Pentagon then earmarked $21.4m (€18.2m) in its 2017 budget to refurbish a hangar at Keflavík in order to make it fit for purpose to house a US navy p-8a Poseidon surveillance aircraft; the US wants to conduct exploratory missions from Iceland.
The timely shot in the arm to the US-Icelandic relationship in the face of Russian posturing isn’t a coincidence. “Russia has by far the most dominant Arctic presence and capabilities bar none,” says Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow at London-based think-tank Chatham House. “We’re at a time where geostrategic issues are influenced by gepolitics, geoeconomics and geophysical changes in the Arctic. This is becoming a much more critical region to monitor and, if necessary, deny access.”
It’s not just Russia that’s a concern. As it gets increasingly cosy with China, there’s a worry that the Asian superpower could also be a threat to the region. “In the agreement between the US and Iceland there’s specific mention of submarines and cyber defence,” says Paskal. “We know that the Chinese are ramping up their cyber capabilities, whereas Russia’s capabilities in that regard are obviously excellent. The Russia stuff is the tip of the spear. The secondary concern is Chinese money, which gives momentum to the spear itself.”
It’s on this geopolitical stage that the action of the US’s air-surveillance mission is taking place. “It’s important for us to be well trained because that’s the best deterrent,” says Maj Gen Kelk. “As an ally and a strong ally, one that is committed to defence of Europe, we need to make sure we keep up to speed and there’s only one way to do that: by training on site.”
The training exercises in Iceland aren’t always about tackling a potential threat: sometimes the focus is dealing with the terrain of the country itself. Sitting in the rear of a kc-10 Extender, an aerial refuelling tanker aircraft, Staff Sergeant Alissa Anderson looks completely at ease as she flicks switches and adjusts mirrors. As the boom operator, she says she has “the best job in the world”. The rugged Icelandic landscape is spread out below us and the blue sky stretches as far as the eye can see from the boom window at the back of the plane. Suddenly, an f-15c jet drops into view and begins creeping up close behind the kc-10. “I have control of everything around us,” says Anderson confidently. She lowers the refuelling boom from the back of the kc-10 and uses the dials and levers in front of her to guide the boom to the front of the fighter jet; moments later it connects. The jet is now being refuelled, 30,000 feet in the air.
The mid-air refuelling routine is an especially necessary capability in Iceland, where the island’s remoteness and unpredictable weather can create a perfect storm of conditions that could potentially leave the fuel-guzzling fighter jets high and dry, with no place to land. “There are only three outbases on the island,” says fighter pilot Major Barry Sodini. “And even those bases, for what our requirements are as fighters, are essentially ‘contingency only’ because their runways are so short.”
Exercises such as this help keep the US forces nimble and Iceland prepared. “We are bridging a gap,” says Lieutenant Colonel George Downs. It’s hard to tell how long that gap will need to be bridged for. Iceland and the US are both tight-lipped about whether the latter will reinstate pre-2006 levels of personnel to the country. While Iceland’s foreign minister Thórdarson says that a “full return” isn’t being discussed, he does add, “Our relationship with the US is very good and will continue to evolve.”
Just how it evolves is still up in the air. As the sun begins to dip toward the horizon, pilots and crew gather in the common area to debate social plans for the evening. All in all, the airmen seem at home here, which is a good thing: one day they might be. For now they’ll do all they can to stand by their longtime ally. “This is the new reality,” says Maj Gen Kelk. “We haven’t been here full-time since 2006 – but we’re still here.”
The US in Iceland – a timeline:
1941 US troops arrive in Iceland to support British forces during the Second World War
1944 The US is the first country to recognise Iceland’s independence from Danish rule
1949 Iceland becomes a founding member of Nato
1951 The US and Iceland sign a bilateral agreement in which the US promises to provide defence for Iceland on behalf of Nato
1986 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meet at the Reykjavík Summit, a turning point in the Cold War
2006 The US pulls all its personnel from Naval Air Station Keflavík
2008 US forces return to Iceland under the auspices of Nato to conduct air-surveillance missions
2016 The US and Iceland sign a joint agreement reaffirming their security alliance
2017 The US airforce arrives at Keflavík for its 10th Nato mission in Iceland
Though much has changed since the end of the Cold War, some things remain the same. Einar Benediktsson, Iceland’s former ambassador to the US, cautions that Russian aggression “shouldn’t be taken lightly”. “There is a power vacuum in the region that was created by the Americans’ departure from Iceland,” he says. “Since the US left, the Russians have been increasing their military presence in the high north. Whatever that may mean for the future it is a new scenario – so it’s a worry.”
That vacuum was briefly addressed with the establishment of the Icelandic Defence Agency in 2008; the body was dedicated to the nation’s defence policy and security. But it was short-lived: the then left-wing government closed it in 2010. “It was one of the bigger mistakes our government has made,” says Björn Símonarson, a former employee at the agency, who is now the principal security researcher at Syndis, a cyber-security think-tank in Reykjavík. “It was the first time in our history that we were actually responsible for our own defence.”
Economic worries and the threat of terrorism are also felt on the island’s shores. But without its own armed forces, the future of defence in Iceland involves closer co-operation with its allies. As Benediktsson puts it, “The key is our co-operation with the US.”