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As tensions mount between Russia and NATO, the alliance has had to refocus from external support missions to border security. For over five decades, Iceland’s sprawling Keflavik air station served as a front line for the West during its struggle with the Soviet Union. The station is the size of a small town, and it once housed thousands of U.S. servicemen who were tasked with tracking Soviet submarines and aircraft as they crossed into the Atlantic Ocean. Yet as the Cold War waned, so did Keflavik’s importance: The base was unceremoniously closed in 2006 and parceled up by domestic entities—some of it became student housing, other portions were transferred to the international airport, and what remained was to be maintained by the Icelandic Coast Guard.
But buried within the Pentagon’s 2017 budget is a $19 million request to renovate Keflavik’s facilities to make them suitable for a new generation of U.S. sub-hunting aircraft. Although the base has closed, the base’s airfield has been kept in use for commercial flights, and the Icelandic Coast Guard has kept up with maintenance for facilities as part of Iceland’s contribution to NATO. The investment heralds a more active response to Russian machinations, but also revitalizes a critical defense relationship that had been dulled by a decade of neglect.
The U.S. military base in Keflavik was built in World War II to serve as a way station for military forces on their way to Europe. After the war, it emerged as one of the United States’ most vital installations. Ringed by radar stations, Iceland was the linchpin for the United States’ early warning radar system, which could provide notification of incoming Soviet attacks. Those notifications would go to the soldiers at Keflavik who would move to intercept. And during the Cold War, U.S. fighter jets stationed at Keflavik would intercept Soviet bombers entering Iceland’s Military Air Identification Zone almost every other day. This number peaked in 1985 when 170 Soviet reconnaissance bombers were intercepted within the zone. The number of intercepts has declined in the years following, until the flight of Russian bombers ceased by 1990.
Iceland was so significant to the United States in the Cold War that it became a founding member of NATO in 1949, despite being a demilitarized state with no military of its own. Keenly aware of Iceland’s strategic value as well as its vulnerability, Reykjavik signed a defense agreement with the United States in 1951 under which the United States assumed responsibility for Iceland’s defense and, in return, the United States could operate the Keflavik military base on behalf of NATO.
Over the years, the base’s purpose evolved as the threat of bombing raids ended and was replaced by potential submarine attacks. The personnel at the base shifted their focus to tracing Soviet submarines that entered and exited the Barents Sea. Once the Cold War ended and Washington’s priorities shifted away from the North Atlantic, the United States sought an exit from Keflavik. In the 1990s, the Icelandic government argued for maintaining fighters at Keflavik, as well as keeping the base open in order to meet the country’s minimum defense requirements for NATO membership. But even that wasn’t enough to keep the base around forever. In 2006, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, thereby closing Keflavik military installment after 50 years of continuous operations.
Even as the U.S. military’s tenure in Iceland came to an abrupt end, the seeds of a potential return were already being planted. Ever since the inception of NATO Air Policing Missions in Iceland, the United States has had a permanent slot in Keflavik during the beginning of each year. So far, the United States has been the only NATO member with this distinction. The 1951 Defense Agreement is still in effect as well—although in 2006, the agreement was amended so that the U.S. defense guarantee no longer requires troops to be permanently stationed in the country. The United States has since pledged to defend Iceland with movable forces.
Shortly after the Icelandic authorities assumed formal responsibility for all base facilities from the United States in 2006, a squadron of Russian reconnaissance bombers came near Iceland’s airspace. Although such an event was commonplace during the Cold War, Russia had not flown military planes this close to Iceland since two singular flights in 1999 and 2003. The intrusion by Russian bombers in 2006, however, was not a singular episode. Rather it began a pattern that has continued with increasing regularity to this day. Iceland briefly chartered a defense agency in 2008, only to dissolve the organization in 2011 because of budgetary issues.
In the wake of the U.S. departure, NATO has taken up the slack. Since 2008 the alliance has provided Reykjavik with some funds to maintain critical radar facilities around the island, and it has provided aircraft deployments from member nations for short deployments.
But as Russia’s geopolitical assertiveness has shown, NATO’s current strategy isn’t enough. Along with the Baltic States, Scandinavia has emerged as a frequent target of Moscow’s military provocations, with aircraft regularly violating the airspace of several Nordic countries. Russian submarines have been spotted within the territorial waters of Sweden and Finland, and Iceland has seen numerous Russian bombers flying close to its airspace as they circumnavigate the island. Nordic and U.S. deputy defense ministers met last fall to discuss further cooperation on Icelandic security, and the Pentagon’s has responded in kind by requesting funds to renovate facilities at Keflavik.
In April 2015, a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft visited Iceland to assess whether facilities at Keflavik were suitable for the aircraft. They identified the need for new equipment that could accommodate the larger tailfin on the P-8As. And so, the United States plans to spend $19 million to renovate Keflavik’s existing facilities. These upgrades may prove to be the first of many initiatives undertaken to bring the U.S. military back to Iceland. The U.S. Navy, for now, has only expressed interest in short-term deployments of the P-8A, and a permanent patrol mission would require long-term diplomatic discussions between Icelandic and U.S. officials. News of the Pentagon’s plans for Keflavik and the return of the U.S. military has been met with trepidation in Iceland, made worse by the fact that Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and the public learned of the Pentagon’s budget request through media sources, rather than official channels.
Reykjavik’s concerns about accepting U.S. troops on a permanent basis are understandable, and are rooted in the nation’s history. The U.S. base in Keflavik was divisive during the height of Russian–U.S. tensions, with frequent controversies erupting between U.S. servicemen and Icelanders. By the mid-2000s, however, the base had long since ceased to be a topic of serious political dispute. So when the United States announced its departure in 2006, the news came as a shock. The unilateral decision to close the base left a bitter sense of disappointment among Iceland’s politicians, and made those in government feel as though they had been sidestepped once Keflavik had outlived its apparent usefulness. Much of this disillusionment endures today, providing Washington with an obstacle as it seeks to re-establish its presence in the nation.
The full reopening of a U.S. military base in Keflavik, even in the face of ongoing Russian antagonism, remains doubtful. The political legacy of the Washington’s rapid and unexpected departure, as well as the current tenants of the base that took over in its wake, makes the prospect of a permanent return unlikely. But the United States remains obligated to ensure Iceland’s safety by virtue of its membership in NATO, and has pledged to protect the nation in line with the 1951 Defense Agreement.
Relations between Moscow and Washington seem unlikely to warm in the near future. The annexation of Crimea showed that Russia is willing and capable to use military means to achieve political goals—even to the extent of redrawing European borders. As long as European allies are reliant on U.S. military power, and as long the United States believes that it has strategic interests in Europe, Iceland will remain the indispensable bridge between Europe and North America that is needed for credible U.S. defense guarantees in Europe.