BY: CSABA KÁNCZ
The state of Iceland never had a standing army, but its strategic location half way between Norway and Canada’s eastern coast allowed the country to become a founding member of NATO at the beginning of the Cold War. The country’s defense currently consists of the Coast Guard as well as the National Securities and Special Forces Unit. During the Cold War, one of the largest US military bases in the world operated in Iceland’s Keflavik Air Base between 1951 and 2006, serving as a critical marine base for monitoring Soviet submarine activities. Subsequently in 2006, the US agreed to scale back its military presence. In May 2008, NATO began rotating its patrol over Iceland’s airspace to provide air support.
The US Navy is now preparing its return to Iceland, an island with a strategic location, amid the deployment of Russia’s submarines in the GIUK gap. The GIUK gap is an area in the northern Atlantic Ocean that forms a naval choke point. Its name is an acronym for Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom, the gap being the open ocean between these three landmasses. The return of the US military in this region has the potential to create a serious ripple effect in Icelandic domestic politics.
Since the Crimean crisis of 2014, a chilly wind is blowing again between Moscow and NATO. In this tense atmosphere, many experts were stunned to see the draft 2018 American defense budget designate millions of dollars to the modernization of the Keflavik Air Base. The proposed budget indicates that Washington is planning to return to the island. Though it is not entirely clear what drove the action, but many military observers have argued that Russian submarines are capable of reaching the US eastern shores undetected.
Contrary to Soviet times, Moscow operates a smaller yet cutting edge navy. The sensors and microphones used by NATO during the Cold War will no longer be enough to monitor the Russian submarines. A refurbished and modernized Icelandic base will include the US Navy’s long range P-8 Poseidon, an anti-submarine aircraft.
The aircraft is necessary to protect the vital yet vulnerable undersea cables that run between America and Europe. These cables handle 15 million financial transactions daily, worth a total of USD 10 billion. Hostile submarines can easily damage this infrastructure that would necessitate complicated repair work.
Quoting American military sources, the Norwegian media reports that Russia is developing an Arctic base, called Orenya Guba, with submarines and ships used for undersea intelligence gathering. The base is under the direct command of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. The Norwegian media is particularly focusing on a Russian intelligence ship, called Yantar, which is “officially” used for deep-sea research and rescue operations. But, according to new British report, the ship carries two small submarines thought to be capable of cutting cables or tapping them for information.
The return of a permanent US military presence would cause a severe upheaval of Icelandic domestic politics. This is attributed to the new premier, the leftist-green Katrin Jakobsdottir, whose party is not only pacifist, but is calling for Iceland’s outright departure from NATO. Jakobsdottir admits that there is no consensus on this crucial issue in the society, thus her party would seek to initiate a referendum.
They have yet to check whether the government is authorized to call for one on this cardinal issue. Since Iceland and the United States entered a defense agreement in 1951, certain aspects continue to remain in force. Additionally, in 2016, new paragraphs were added to the agreement signaling paving the pathway for stronger future cooperation, which culminated in the renewed defense spending by the U.S. government.
The return of US Navy to Iceland marks a new chapter in the escalating military tension between Washington and Moscow. In the past few months, the US administration has published three important documents: the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Nuclear Posture Review. In all of them, Russia is explicitly identified as a serious threat to the international order. In this tense stand-off, Iceland is again becoming a pawn on the global geopolitical chessboard.
Csaba Káncz is a Hungarian columnist on geopolitics for Privátbankár.hu. Between 2010-2012 he was a counsellor at the European Commission. He holds an MSc from Utsunomiya University, Japan.
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