- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Likely one of the lesser-known diplomatic pacts Washington maintains is a 1951 treaty with Iceland, in which the U.S. assumes responsibility for the protection of the tiny island nation. Throughout the Cold War, the Pentagon even ran something called the Iceland Defense Force — which only closed up shop in 2006 — and flew spy planes and fighter jets out of Naval Air Station Keflavík.
Thanks to increased Russian air and sea activity in the North Atlantic, however, the U.S. Navy is taking a new look at Keflavík. As part of this week’s 2017 budget rollout, the Navy requested $19 million to reopen at least part of the air station to start landing P-8A Poseidon spy planes there. The Poseidon specializes in submarine tracking, and with Russian sub activity in the Baltic and North Atlantic surpassing Cold War levels, the Pentagon is looking to move back in.
The money is part of the Pentagon’s $3.4 billion request to bolster defenses in Europe.
In the decade since the 2006 U.S. pullout, Iceland has hosted a series of “peacetime preparedness missions” where aircraft from various NATO countries use Keflavik to fly air defense patrols. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work even visited the base last fall to call attention to the increase Russian military flights around Iceland, and toured an airplane hangar there that would need to be expanded to house the P-8A Poseidon.
But Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs is sounding a note of caution. Already under some pressure for backing economic sanctions against Russia — which caused Moscow to place an embargo on importing food from Iceland in August 2015 — the ministry issued a very precise statement Wednesday about the Navy’s request.
“There are no talks taking place between Iceland and the U.S. on permanent stationing of American servicemen in Iceland,” the statement read. But a big caveat followed: “On the other hand, it has been clearly evident that the European security environment has undergone great changes in recent years.” That, the statement said, has led to discussions “on the possibility of increased presence of U.S. and other NATO allies in the North Atlantic and in Iceland on the basis of our mutual defense commitments.”
It should be noted that the Navy’s request to fix the airplane hanger and the areas around it for $19 million falls far short of the $250 million it cost the Pentagon annually to maintain the base when it was up and fully running. In other words, landing and refueling planes at the base likely wouldn’t involve a “permanent stationing” of U.S. forces there, which would seem to suit Washington and Reykjavik just fine.
Photo Credit: CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images