(The second in an ongoing series on the quest for control of the Arctic)
WASHINGTON — The Navy is upping its game in the Arctic and — with a sharp focus on increased Russian activity above and below the water — is seeking a sub base in Iceland.
Or so they said. Now they are saying nothing. And Iceland is saying “Huh? Glætan” — or essentially no way.
“Iceland is at a strategic crossroad in the GIUK gap, and that’s something that I emphasize to my Icelandic partners and friends and allies,” Adm. James Foggo, the head of U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa and the commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, told reporters last October from the bridge of Icelandic Coast Guard offshore patrol vessel ICGV Thor.
The “GIUK gap” refers to the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap, the waterways through the North Atlantic to the Arctic. Iceland is at a pivotal point in travel to high-north destinations — both by commercial and military vessels — as North Atlantic and Arctic sea lanes open up.
Iceland was a key host in the NATO exercise Trident Juncture last fall, one of its largest exercises since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Melting ice is opening long-closed sea lanes and access to more parts of the Arctic. Russia is using its military and China is using its economics to widen footnotes in the Arctic, with Iceland ground zero for both.
Among the largest increases are Russian submarines, a major reason why the U.S. and other NATO nations have boosted activity in the area around Iceland.
“They’re operating in much greater numbers and in places they have not operated before,” Foggo said, regarding Russian submarines.
It is also the driving force behind the Navy’s quest for a sub base on the island.
Navy officials initially confirmed the search to TMN, saying it was a part of a “robust forward looking Arctic strategy.” They then backed off, saying there are “no immediate plans” to seek a permanent base in Iceland.
At one point, individuals from the World Bank were involved in the search, although their specific role was never precisely outlined, according to individuals with knowledge of the activities.
Iceland is a NATO member but last had a military in 1869.
Iceland’s national security policy includes a point of emphasis to include “particular consideration to Iceland’s environmental and security interests in the Arctic through international cooperation and domestic preparedness,” according to documents provided to TMN.
It is heavily invested in ensuring the Arctic is safe for environmental impacts and commercial reasons, as well as wary against militarization of the region.
“Icelanders, more than other nations, rely on the fragile resources of the Arctic region,” the parliament’s resolution on the Arctic says, in part. “General security must be strengthened in the Arctic region and the militarization of the area prevented.”
(The Arctic is generally defined as all U.S. and foreign territory north of the Arctic Circle and all U.S. territory north and west of the boundary formed by the Porcupine, Yukon, and Kuskokwim Rivers; all contiguous seas, including the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort, Bering, and Chukchi Seas; and the Aleutian islands chain.)
Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, a member of the Socialist Party, has said her country should withdraw from NATO. “The Arctic should stay a low-tension zone,” she said in June.
Iceland was a highly strategic location in the Cold War, poised to be a choke point if the Soviet Union’s attack submarines attempted to break out into the Atlantic and threaten NATO shipping.
The U.S. established a US Naval Air Station in Iceland in 1951 to counter the Soviet threat. It was deactivated in 2006 but the resurgent Russia with its expanded submarine fleet has prompted the Pentagon to begin returning to Iceland.
Now U.S. P-8A Poseidon submarine hunters and NATO planes are making a flight about every other day out of a reawakened base at Keflavik International Airport to track Russian subs.
The Air Force has budgeted $56.2 million on construction projects at Keflavík airport in the current budget. The goal is to enable two flight squadrons of 18 to 24 fighter jets each that can be accommodated at the airport 24 hours a day.
In the 2020 budget, the Air Force is seeking $18 million to construct areas to handle weaponry, $7 million to build a portable military facility, and $32 million for tarmac.
Iceland’s foreign minister, Thór Thórdarson, said in a speech in Stockholm in January that alliance aircraft are operating out of the country with increased frequency, taking off from Keflavik for a total of 153 days in 2017, up from 21 days in 2014, according to news reports.
Andrés Ingi Jónsson, a member of Iceland’s parliament who belongs to the Green Party, earlier this year expressed the unease of many in Iceland about the growing military presence.
“And then in order to do submarine surveillance flights, the American military wants to build up facilities and this has clearly lead to the Icelandic government contributing money as well, in order to improve these facilities,” he said in The Iceland Review. “And I think that with this, we’ve gotten one step too close to having a military base here again.”