Return to Keflavik Station

Iceland's Cold War Legacy Reappraised

An Icelandic military honor guard prepares for a handover ceremony with U.S. officials at Keflavik Naval Air Station near Reykjavik September 30, 2006. Bob Strong / Reuters

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

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