Return to Keflavík?

Analysis | While it remains unclear how much of a return the US military will make to its former North Atlantic outpost, the fact that it is considering it all reveals some of its thinking about Arctic security

All routes lead to Keflavík (Photo: US Navy/Lt j.g. Grade Matthew Skoglund)

Marc Lanteigne

After almost a decade following the United States Navy quietly closing its facilities at Keflavík, talk began to circulate in the autumn of 2015 about a return of US forces to the same base it had occupied since 1951 as a pivotal component of American defences in the North Atlantic during the Cold War era.

These plans appeared to be affirmed after it was announced in February of this year that within the Pentagon’s 2017 budget proposal was a request for $22 million to refurbish the installations at Keflavík in order to house American personnel as well as Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft (pictured above) which could be used for regional patrols, especially submarine hunting, and potential maritime interdiction activities.

Although there had been protests in Iceland, notably following the breakup of the USSR in 1991, over the American military presence in the country, the potential return of US forces has not generated much public opposition, reflecting the political atmosphere in Iceland as well as the changing geopolitics of the greater Arctic region.

It remains unclear as to what strategic footprint Washington is now seeking in Iceland beyond this initial budget request, and there is also the wild card of the upcoming US elections. In a statement this month, Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson praised the proposal as potentially adding another important layer to Iceland’s security, but also noted that there was no talk about a permanent US military presence in the country. This point was echoed by Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, who stressed that a return to the pre-2006 US military presence was not on the cards.

The US had stationed aircraft and personnel in Keflavík under the terms of the United States-Iceland Defence Treaty, agreed to in May 1951. Iceland, with no standing military of its own, was recognised by Washington as a key vantage point from which to monitor Soviet military activity both in the North Atlantic as well as the so-called ‘GUIK gap’, (the waters separating Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom), which had been traditionally viewed as a major maritime choke point in a time of conflict. Since 2008, Icelandic airspace has been routinely patrolled by Nato member states as part of the Icelandic Air Policing operations.

The main rationale for renewed American interests in Keflavík has been the increasing incidents of Russian air and sea incursions into several Arctic countries, including Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden, as well as Iceland. The US and its Nato allies in Europe are especially concerned about the movement of Russian submarines in the North Atlantic. Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, much of Europe has become concerned about what it saw as Moscow’s growing assertiveness, including into the Far North.

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However, the Keflavík decision also reflects wider American concerns about Arctic security, with Russia announcing plans to reopen Cold War bases in the region and on-going concerns about an ‘icebreaker gap’ which finally prompted the Obama government to call, in December 2015, for the acquisition of at least one new ice-breaking vessel, (at a cost of about $1 billion), by 2020.

There might be a hint of great-power balancing behaviour in the return to Keflavík as well, as China concluded a free-trade agreement with Iceland in 2013, and economic relations between the two states have warmed considerably since then as Beijing has sought to develop its Arctic diplomacy.

Depressed oil and commodity prices have cooled speculation that a resource scramble in the Arctic is immanent, but the region remains a focus of strategic concern both due to the on-going brittle relations between Russia and the West, and the possibility of expanded use of northern sea routes in the coming years due to retreating ice.

As several Arctic governments have begun to re-evaluate their approaches to Arctic security, the return of the United States to Keflavík is the most visible sign yet that strategic markers are starting to be placed in the region with greater regularity.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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