Why does the Pentagon want to refurbish a base in Iceland?

The $21.4 million in upgrades are designed to equip the station with reconnaissance planes that will patrol the North Atlantic for Russian submarines.

Marit Hommedal/NTB Scanpix via Reuters
NATO forces conduct an anti-submarine exercise in the North Sea off the coast of Norway in May 2015. The Pentagon plans to upgrade the Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland to counter Russia's growing military presence in the North Atlantic.

When the United States closed the Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland in 2006, military analysts in both nations were stunned.

While a menacing Russian agenda – the genesis of the base in 1951 – seemed remote in the aftermath of the cold war, Iceland was still viewed as a gem of a monitoring post.

Now, the US is giving its strategic value a fresh appraisal.

Last month, the Pentagon allocated $21.4 million in its 2017 fiscal budget to renew hanger facilities and restore infrastructure at the base. The planned upgrades will pave the way for basing P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance planes there. The submarine-hunting P-8s will help patrol the North Atlantic – and serve as a counterbalance to Russia's growing military presence in the region.

"Having eyes and ears in Iceland brings tremendous strategic value and provides a listening post for the US and NATO allies in terms of tracking Russian movement, especially in the Arctic," says Carl Hvenmark Nilsson, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. Nilsson says Moscow's revanchist foreign policy, as seen in Ukraine, helps explain its intensified military activity in the North Atlantic and Arctic. Russia has conducted three major military exercises in the region in the past three years: They include an operational-strategic exercise of more than 100,000 soldiers in 2014 and a snap military drill last March that was made up of 45,000 servicemen, 15 submarines, and 41 warships “displaying full combat readiness," says Nilsson.

Russia's reemerging threat

Iceland's geography has been likened to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic. US Navy Capt. Sean Liedman, a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the country's location midway between the US and Europe makes it well suited as a support stop.

Indeed, Iceland has been a stronghold for military strategists since World War II, when Allied forces used it to track German submarines in waters stretching from Greenland to Britain.

NATO members, including the US, signed a bilateral agreement with Iceland in 1951 to operate the base. It became crucial for tracking Soviet submarines that were easier to detect as they navigated narrow underwater recesses off Iceland. 

At its peak during the cold war, about 5,000 US Navy and Air Force personnel and their families were stationed at Keflavik.

But in 2006, the Pentagon announced it would close the base as its focus shifted to Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time, Russian aggression in the North Atlantic seemed remote.

The announcement shocked Icelanders and military analysts alike. One Icelandic official described the sudden departure as leaving "bruises and scars." Many viewed it as peremptory. Still, the closure didn't leave Iceland – which has a small coast guard but no standing army – defenseless. Under a 1951 defense agreement, the US and other NATO nations share duties to defend it.

'Money well spent'

Today, Russia's growing military presence in the North Atlantic also has US defense experts worried about the security of underwater telecommunication cables. Ret. Navy Capt. Gerry Hendrix, a defense specialist at the Center for a New American Security in Washington who says the US should never have reduced its presence in Iceland, warns that interference by Russian submarines could be detrimental to countries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Then there are the trade, safety, and environmental issues surrounding Iceland's geopolitics. Iceland is a NATO member, and it backs Western sanctions against Russia. On the other hand, Russia is an important buyer of Icelandic seafood, one of the country's top exports.

John Higginbotham, a senior fellow at Canada's Centre for International Governance Innovation, says the Pentagon's announcement to upgrade – but not fully reopen – the Keflavik base suggests that the US "obviously didn't want to be provocative but it does add to their capacity."

In a statement released earlier this month, Iceland's Ministry for Foreign Affairs underscored that there are no talks between the US and Iceland to permanently station American troops at Keflavik. Yet the statement did say that "there have been discussions on the possibility of increased presence of US and other NATO Allies in the North Atlantic and in Iceland" based on "mutual defense commitments."

Nilsson says reestablishing a presence in Iceland "is money very well spent for NATO and for the US Navy."

"It will also send a very clear message to the Kremlin that it will be a measure from NATO to deter Russia from further intrusion of international water," he adds.

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