Iceland renews its strategic importance as tensions between NATO, Russia rise

As Russian submarine activity increases in the North Atlantic and as commercial shipping growth increases, Iceland is once again becoming a strategically important country to NATO and the United States.

Iceland does not field a regular navy, however, it has become vitally important in terms of sea-lane control and maritime security in the North Atlantic region at the center of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap.

The head of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, Adm. James Foggo, who also leads NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, visited Iceland this week for the launch of the massive Trident Juncture 2018 military exercises, USNI News reported.

“Iceland is at a strategic crossroad in the GIUK gap, and that’s something that I emphasize to my Icelandic partners and friends and allies,” he said on 16 Oct. from the bridge of Icelandic Coast Guard offshore patrol vessel ICGV Thor.

“They’re punching above their weight class: they’re doing integrated air defense, air policing, and they’re providing us with the opportunity to use facilities at Keflavik (Air Base) to launch P-8 aircraft and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance and also theater [anti-submarine warfare] that’s part and parcel of the Trident Juncture plan,” he added.

The 220-member strong Iceland Coast Guard operates the NATO Iceland Air Defense System, which is a part of the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defense System and the NATO Control and Reporting Center that feeds into the Combined Air Operations Center.

Additionally, Iceland’s contribution to NATO’s defense is by allowing allied forces to operate from Keflavik, where the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy had a permanent presence there from 1951 to 2006. The U.S. military won’t have a permanent presence at the base anytime in the near future, but elements of the Navy continue to operate P-8 Poseidon sub-hunting maritime patrol aircraft there.

In all, the U.S. Navy and Air Force will spend a combined $35 million or so on upgrades to the Icelandic facility to support those planes, which are an upgrade from the Navy’s P-3 Orion aircraft that used to operate out of Keflavik.

Analysis: The UK and Norway are currently in the process of purchasing Boeing-built P-8 Poseidon planes, and Foggo hopes they, too, will soon be operating out of Keflavik.

Historically, the base was important because during the Cold War, as today, Soviet (now Russian) subs belonging to the Northern Fleet made their way from their bases into the North Atlantic via the GIUK Gap. Once the base was closed in 2006, NATO and the U.S. essentially abandoned their ability to track Russian subs operating in the region.

But then, Russian sub activity in the North Atlantic had been reduced to a fraction of what it was during the Cold War. Today, that’s not the case: Moscow has begun to operate in the North Atlantic much more frequently, especially as President Vladimir Putin has turned his attention to the Arctic, where he hopes to cultivate new commercial ventures such as drilling for oil and gas.

Beginning in the early 2000s, Putin made recapitalizing the Russia navy a priority. Today, the undersea fleet “is in the best state it has been in since the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the Center for Naval Analyses. “A lot of effort has been spent on drilling, training, and readiness.”

At present, the Russian sub force, at 50 boats, is substantially fewer than the 400 or so fielded by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But today’s diesel and nuclear-power boats are far more sophisticated and better armed. For example, Russian subs are fitted with Kalibr over-the-horizon cruise missiles that can strike every European capital from the outer reaches of the North Atlantic. Currently, Russia operates two new Yasen-class boats which carry 32 Kalibr missiles. The exact range is not known but these vessels have fired Kalibr cruise missiles into Syria from as far away as 700 miles.

And while Adm. Foggo doesn’t believe Russia would attack any NATO warship or capital at the present time, he did say the U.S. and NATO must improve their capability to track Russian subs operating in the region. 

He also said it was in the United States’ and NATO’s best interests to know where Russian subs were operating when they are in the GIUK Gap due to the presence of undersea data cables, which carry nearly all of the information between Europe and North America.

“We need to know that they’re safe. We need to be able to monitor them. We need to ensure that nobody else does anything untoward to those cables. I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

All of which means reinvesting in Iceland. 



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