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F-15s out of Lakenheath patrol the skies above Iceland

A U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle, assigned to the 493rd Fighter Squadron, departs RAF Lakenheath, England, for Keflavik, Iceland, on Oct. 8, 2020. The U.S. Air Force this week took over the NATO air policing mission in Iceland, operating out of Keflavik.

JESSI MONTE/U.S. AIR FORCE

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 13, 2020

U.S. fighter jets have taken over a NATO air policing mission in the North Atlantic, operating from a base in Iceland that is of growing importance to the alliance as it counters an aggressive and expansionist Russia.

F-15 C/D Eagles from 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron out of RAF Lakenheath in England assumed control Monday of the mission at Keflavik Air Base, from where they will patrol Icelandic air space.

“Aircrews stand prepared to monitor and manage Icelandic airspace for the next few weeks as they operate and familiarize themselves with the unique geographical location,” the 48th Fight Wing said in a statement.

The deployment is part of a NATO mission that began in 2008 with periodic rotations to Iceland.

While the U.S. largely abandoned the area after the end of the Cold War, it has been reinvesting in the High North since Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

In addition to countering Russian aggression, NATO allies are concerned that, as ice melts in the Arctic, new shipping lanes will open and competition for resources will increase between the alliance and Russia.

Russia has reoccupied former Soviet bases and built new bases in the region, Adm. James Foggo, then the head of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, said last year. China has also been trying to gain a foothold in the region.

In September, the Air Force awarded projects worth $38 million to improve the airfield at Naval Air Station Keflavik, which is a launching pad for U.S. European Command surveillance efforts.

The Navy’s 2nd Fleet, which was reestablished in 2018 to counter Russia in the North Atlantic, established a Maritime Operations Center in Keflavik last year. Thirty staff members were based there as of January.

Navy P-8 Poseidon submarine tracking planes have been flying in and out of Keflavik for several years.

Iceland doesn’t have an air force of its own and requested more than a decade ago that allied fighters be based there as part of the air policing effort. NATO has similar policing missions in the Baltics and the Black Sea region.

“The routine deployment demonstrates Alliance solidarity and the transatlantic linkage at work,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Hansen, NATO Allied Air Command deputy chief of staff operations.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver
  

An F-15C Eagle assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing conducts aerial operations over Keflavik, Iceland, March 16, 2020. F-15s from the 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron out of RAF Lakenheath in England on Monday, Oct. 13, 2020, assumed control of NATO's air policing mission at Keflavik Air Base, which has become increasingly important to the alliance as it counters an aggressive and expansionist Russia.
MATTHEW PLEW/U.S. AIR FORCE