No permanent basing for Navy sub hunters in Iceland despite construction projects
Although the U.S. Navy is refurbishing facilities on a former air base in Iceland as part of a renewed military focus on the North Atlantic, Navy officials say that does not mean a return of stationing U.S. troops in the strategically vital nation.
The Navy has been allotted nearly $36 million in the two most recent defense budgets to refurbish a hangar at Naval Air Station Keflavik to accommodate its submarine-hunting P-8A Poseidon jets.
The funding comes from an initiative begun after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, and as a response to Moscow sending more sophisticated submarines and surface warships into the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea.
But it is not a precursor to a return of U.S. troops to Keflavik Air Base, which once hosted some 5,000 of them.
The U.S. military built the base during World War II as a way-station for planes ferrying personnel, equipment and supplies to Europe. It was used by U.S. and NATO forces throughout the Cold War and was finally deactivated in 2006.
“While Iceland remains a strong NATO ally, the U.S. has no plans to re-establish a permanent presence in Iceland,” said Cmdr. Pamela Rawe, a spokeswoman for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.
“The P-8A aircraft that operate out of Iceland do so on a rotational basis,” Rawe said. “This means that when they are participating in an operation or exercise they work out of Keflavik Air Base and then return to their ‘hub’ in Sigonella, Italy.”
Rawe said that the first squadron of Boeing P-8A maritime reconnaissance aircraft, which are replacing the turbo-prop Lockheed P-3C Orions throughout the Navy, deployed to Europe in September 2016.
Generally, she said, one or two P-8s — of a squadron of seven or eight planes — operate out of Iceland, usually for military exercises and on no set schedule.
Still, experts say they expect more patrolling above the waters in the “GIUK gap” — an acronym for Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom — the North Atlantic’s chokepoint as well as the route for Russia’s northern fleet to enter the Atlantic Ocean.
That location makes Iceland a key strategic asset.
It is “the unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic that you can fly from,” said Magnus Nordenman at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s had enduring importance for the defense of the North Atlantic.”
Nordenman said that after decades of “almost complete abandonment” of the North Atlantic in favor of operations elsewhere in the world, NATO had a renewed focus there. Britain and Norway are also buying P-8s, he said, and NATO has discussed forming a new “Atlantic Command” to deal with what’s perceived as an emerging threat.
“For decades the north Atlantic didn’t matter. The Russian fleet was barely moving out of port,” Nordenman said. “That’s changed with Russian aggressiveness. There really is a return of focus.”
But Iceland is also a pacifist country with no armed forces and decidedly mixed feelings about the United States military presence.
“It’s a unique NATO member,” Nordenman said. “What makes it important is its geography.”
Last month the country’s new prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, said she wanted more information about the plans and whether the U.S. needed Iceland’s permission to proceed.
“I have also spoken with the foreign minister about the matter and there are no plans for any permanent long-term (military) presence, which to my mind is important,” she told the Reykjavik Grapevine. Rawe said the military construction projects are being done “in full coordination with the government of Iceland.”