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Russian Resurgence Brings Back Another Cold War Icon: the US Navy in Iceland

A resurgent Russian military is putting Iceland back on the map for the US Navy. Iceland hopes they'll put Keflavik back on the map.
A US Navy P-8A Poseidon at 2014 Farnborough Airshow. (Photo by USAF/Airman First Class Erin O'Shea)

Lots of chatter is going around suggesting that the United States is preparing to base maritime patrol aircraft in Keflavík, Iceland — the "self-proclaimed birthplace of Icelandic rock 'n' roll" — to once again hunt Russian submarines.

The news apparently came as a surprise to Iceland's prime minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who according to one Icelandic news outlet said that he learned about the plan in the press. He later clarified that the proposal involves upgrading hangars to house US patrol aircraft as necessary.


"The US proposal for Keflavik is welcome," he said, "but we have had no talks about increased operations from there. Should more flights and operations happen, then this is already covered under our current defense agreements with the US."

Islands can be used as a kind of military fortification at sea. A defender can station aircraft, base missiles, and host ships, providing a massive, unsinkable base of operations to patrol and fight from.

Because of Iceland's strategic location at the center of a naval bottleneck around Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom known as the GIUK Gap, NATO (and the US particularly) used to run a lot of patrols out of the island during the Cold War.

A host of airbases, including one in Iceland, and anti-submarine aircraft patrols were supplemented with a line of undersea listening stations — the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) — with the aim of preventing Soviet subs from moving downward into the Atlantic Ocean undetected. The US stationed maritime patrol aircraft at Keflavík from 1951 to 2006.

Related: The Undersea Arms Race Between the US and Russia Is Back On

The point of keeping Soviet submarines out was twofold. In the earlier years of the Cold War, nuclear missiles launched from submarines didn't have very good range, so in order to lob a nuke at the US, Soviet nuclear missile subs needed to schlep their payload a good deal of the way toward America, and had to pass through the GIUK Gap to do so.


Further, in the event of a European war between the Soviets and the US, there would have been a huge demand for American reinforcements and supplies. Soviet subs would have been going nuts trying to sink entire ships full of tanks before they even hit Europe; even one or two successes could have had major consequences on the battlefield.

In 2006, well after the Cold War had thawed, the US Navy withdrew its resources from Iceland to distribute them elsewhere.

But ever since Russia capped off the 2014 Winter Olympics with the Great Crimean Heist, its invasion of Ukraine, and various episodes of nuclear saber-rattling, increasing tension between Russia and NATO has riled everyone up. This time around, the thinking involves concerns about submarine-launched cruise missiles and scenarios for a Russian invasion of the Baltic NATO members: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Developments in air defense technology, the geographical deployment of US and European forces, and various other issues mean that if Russian forces were reasonably fast and reasonably clever, they could make it really difficult for the US Air Force to operate with impunity.

That means that the US would likely want to launch long-range cruise missiles from ships and submarines. The Baltic Sea is shallow and confined, however, and the US Navy would be pretty hesitant to wage a knife fight in a phone booth. It would therefore probably want to launch from the North Sea. While the North Sea is on the side of the GIUK Gap that is nearer to Russia, it makes sense that the US and NATO would want to generally have more assets in the region to hunt down Russian submarines and the like.


While the US military isn't basing any aircraft in Iceland quite yet — or at least hasn't approached Iceland about permanently stationing forces there — the Navy's latest budget estimate has earmarked a bit less than $20 million to upgrade hangars and support facilities at Keflavík to handle its new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.

The P-8A — which is based on Boeing's 737 jetliner, the same plane that ordinary passengers fly every day on Southwest Airlines or Ryanair (or Russia's aeroflot, for that matter) — is basically designed to spend a long time covering a lot of water while hunting for subs and ships using a pretty hefty on-board sensor suite supplemented by an array of air-droppable sonar sensors as well as torpedoes, depth charges, and various missiles. The P-8A is a replacement for the earlier P-3 Orion, which started service in 1962.

The proposed deployment is part of the US Defense Department's European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) effort, which was quadrupled from $800 million last year to $3.2 billion in this year's budget request. Most of the ERI money is being used to demonstrate to the world that the US can be relied on to intervene in the event of a major security challenge from Russia — and be effective when it does.

But the ERI campaign comes with a couple of important notes. Nothing indicates that this is a super sudden development. Last year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work toured the base at Keflavík during a visit to Iceland. The US is responsible for the defense of Iceland as stipulated in a 1951 treaty, and Work was there, in part, because of increased Russian patrols in the area over the last few years.


Related: NATO Conducts Anti-Submarine Exercises in North Sea as Russian Activity Increases

Additionally, it's not clear if or when the US will actually base a P-8A squadron there. For the moment, the base is periodically used by US aircraft operating from elsewhere. These upgrades to house the aircraft as necessary simply mean that the US will be able to do those same kinds of stopovers and fly P-8A aircraft to and from Keflavík. That said, the restored infrastructure raises the possibility that Keflavík could become a permanent home to the US military once again.

A P-8A Poseidon at the 2013 Dubai Air Show (Photo by Alberto Riva) 

The Icelandic government welcomes the upgrades, according to the Iceland Review, because it will mean work for local firms and an injection of cash into the local economy. That might include a fairly unexpected twist: The transformation of Keflavík, which has had a bit of an identity crisis since the military left, into an unlikely Icelandic gay mecca.

At least that's the tongue-in-cheek suggestion in an article in the Reykjavík Grapevine. "We need more gay guys in Iceland," Jono Duffy, a gay comic in Iceland, told the English-language site. "After a while, you've basically met or slept with everyone." He has a point: there are only about 320,000 people in all of Iceland. And if things between NATO and Russia continue going the way they are, a few hundred American sailors will be added to that number soon.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan