Permanent Military Presence in Iceland Not on Government’s Agenda

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir NATO summit madrid

Iceland’s National Security Council has no plans to request permanent military presence in Iceland, according to the country’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Katrín told RÚV that Iceland is, however, reviewing its national security policy and working on an updated risk assessment in light of the war in Ukraine.

The security environment in Europe is in a period of change following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has led to Finland and Sweden applying for NATO membership, a move Iceland’s government has supported.

NATO member countries regularly monitor the airspace over Iceland, and increasing that monitoring is a consideration. The Prime Minister says, however, there are no plans to reinstate permanent military presence in Iceland.

Both Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir are currently attending a NATO summit in Madrid. “We have not been discussing a permanent military presence in Iceland, that we have not been discussing,” Katrín told RÚV reporters, adding that the current priorities of Iceland’s security policy were twofold: reviewing security policy and updating the risk assessment for Iceland.

The current security policy was implmented in 2016, and although the Prime Minister believes it has served well, there are “certain points that need to be fine-tuned.” The risk assessment focuses mostly on how Iceland can increase its preparedness, and Katrín emphasised that this does not involve any sort of permanent military presence.

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated the government intends to increase investment at Keflavík Airport, taking into account NATO’s security priorities. Those priorities, however, are mainly focused on the east and south of NATO’s area of influence, Þórdís stated.

As for a permanent military presence in Iceland, Þórdís stated: “It’s not on the agenda.”

Iceland is a founding member of NATO but does not have its own military. US forces maintained a permanent presence in the country from World War II until 2006.

Russia Gives No Explanation of Navy Ships off Iceland’s Coast

Russia ship navy military severomorsk

In late summer of this year, a convoy of Russian military ships set off from the northern port of Severomorsk. The expedition was intended to be a routine Arctic voyage, but it did not end up that way. Three ships from the convoy took an unexpected turn west, sailing close to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and then into Icelandic waters on August 20, RÚV reports. The ships made their presence clear to Icelandic authorities, yet Russia has not answered their inquiries as to why the ships entered Icelandic waters, or why the destroyer Severomorsk circumnavigated the country.

A press release from the Russian Ministry of Defence states that the ships were directed to Iceland to respond to and monitor NATO warships and unexpected air exercises in the northeastern part of the Norwegian Sea, east of Iceland. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson said it was far-fetched that Russia needed to carry out military exercises near Iceland to defend itself. “But they of course have their own approach to international affairs, as we know,” Guðlaugur stated. Still, he added, it was not surprising that Russia would use NATO exercises as an excuse for such activity.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Guðlaugur Þór in Reykjavík last spring, where he expressed his concern about the military conduct of neighbouring countries, stating that “There are unresolved issues related to militarisation and reconstruction in Norway and the Baltic states.”

Iceland’s defence policy is founded on its membership in NATO and the 1951 defence agreement signed with the United States. Iceland has greatly increased its defence spending in recent years, increasing spending by 37% between 2017 and 2019. In its 2020 budget, the US Air Force allocated ISK 7 billion [$56.2 million, €49.5 million] to construction projects at Iceland’s Keflavík Airport.

More Icelandic Hikers Discovering WWII Explosives

WWII explosives Iceland

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled travel-hungry Icelanders outdoors on hiking trips, where they have been discovering more than the beauty of nature, RÚV reports. An unusually high number of WWII-era explosives have been found by hikers in Iceland this spring, and the Icelandic Coast Guard’s explosives experts have been kept busy safely disposing of them.

Soldiers are Gone, But Bombs Remain

The British Royal Navy and Royal Marines invaded Iceland on May 10, 1940. The British were later replaced by Canadian and then American forces. Though the troops are long gone, the same can’t be said of all of their explosives. Icelandic authorities have received 15 notifications of bombs already this year – usually they receive around 50 during the summer, only starting in July.

“What we have become aware of this spring is a higher frequency of people finding military artefacts out in nature which usually doesn’t happen until later in the summer. This is, of course, related to the fact that people are travelling more domestically,” stated Ásgeir Guðjónsson, an explosives expert from the Icelandic Coast Guard. “These cannonballs and bombs that are in nature here are made of steel and have lain here for up to 70 years and have therefore become dangerous because time itself has made the material unstable.”

Explosives Scattered Across Land and Water

Ásgeir says it is not known how many such explosives remain in Iceland, but they could number in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands. They are not only scattered across the land, but also in the ocean surrounding Iceland. Sometimes the safest way of disposing of the bombs is to detonate them, as explosives experts did just a few days ago on the Reykjanes peninsula.

Ásgeir cautions hikers to avoid touching or handling any explosives or military artefacts they come across, and inform the police right away. “We want people to take a picture at the location and contact the police directly, call the police and notify,” so that police can deal with the explosive immediately.

Investigate Navy’s Role in Whale Beachings

whale

The last two years have been record-breaking in the number of whales beached on Iceland’s shores, Vísir reports. MP Andrés Ingi Jónsson wants to know whether the incidents are connected to increased submarine activity in Iceland’s waters, and in particular, the use of sonar equipment. Though an international investigation into whale beaching in the area is ongoing, it has proved difficult to obtain information on military activity that could be affecting whales’ behaviour.

Whale beachings more frequent

In the last decade, 400 whales have been beached along Iceland’s coast. Of those 400, 200 were beached in the last two years alone. Andrés Ingi addressed the incidents last September, inquiring whether sonar from submarines and navy ships could be behind the rise in incidents. He also asked whether the use of sonobuoys, ejected from aircraft or ships to search for submarines, were causing whales (which use sonar to navigate) to become disoriented.

Military information withheld

Andrés Ingi’s enquiry was addressed in a statement from the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, which reads “a multinational study is underway to investigate the causes of unusual numbers of bottlenose whale and beaked whale beachings in 2018 on the shores of many countries in the North Atlantic, including here in Iceland. The presence of warships and naval exercises that took place in the summer of 2018 are considered in that regard. However, it has been difficult to obtain information from military authorities.” The statement also remarks that no research has been conducted in Iceland on the effects of marine traffic which uses powerful sonar.

In response to the statement, Andrés Ingi has submitted an inquiry to the Minister for Foreign Affairs asking how often aircraft have taken off from Keflavík Airport to search for submarines in the past five years and how many sonobuoys such planes deploy on average. He also inquires into the frequency, volume, and typical duration of the sonar equipment used in such activities, and whether its effect on marine life, particularly whales, has been researched.

Sonar could disorient

“Anti-submarine aircraft works in such a way that the aircraft flies low over the ocean’s surface and is shooting down buoys that emit sonar signals like whales use to navigate in the ocean,” Andrés stated. “So it could very well be that it has an effect on whales getting lost and coming up on land.”

Andrés Ingi expressed his understanding of the fact that some military information must be kept private, stating, however, “the fundamental question must be something that the government wants to answer. The fact that the navy is shooting down loud buoys around the country which could be herding whales up onto land.”

Expanded Accommodation “Does Not Mean Permanent Army Base”

Army planes at Keflavík

Accommodation for armed forces at Keflavík Airport is set to expand in order to house up to 300 more troops, Vísir reports. A newly-commissioned land-use plan for the area carried out by the Icelandic Coast Guard outlines plans to add four buildings that could house up to 70 troops each. Presence of foreign forces in Iceland has increased in recent years, mostly connected to surveillance activity.

Short-term accommodation for 1,000

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs instructed the Coast Guard to prepare a land-use plan for Keflavík Airport’s security area, which was published June 19. The area is divided into a western and eastern zone. In the western zone, authorities plan to install containers to provide short-term accommodation for up to 1,000 people. The eastern zone already includes short-term accommodation for up to 200, but the Coast Guard’s plan calls for the addition of four new buildings housing around 70 troops each.

Increased submarine surveillance

When asked for the reasoning behind this large-scale development, the Foreign Ministry’s Public Relations Officer Sveinn Guðmarsson answered that the current accommodations at the site are to small and unsuitable. “Often the number of foreign forces are well over 200, and it happens that the number goes well over 400.”

“Some groups come here with short notice. The presence of foreign forces has increased in recent years, for example due to increased activities in connection with submarine surveillance.” Sveinn says it is ideal for forces to have accommodation within the security area, due to air policing and practice drills. Forces have previously had to stay at hotels in the Suðurnes region or in the capital area due to a lack of space.

More funds for defence

Iceland upped its defence budget by 37% this year. The United States government has also allocated ISK 6 billion ($47.9 million/€42.7 million), for the design and construction of the new security area at Keflavík Airport. US Lieutenant General Richard Clark, who visited Iceland last year, described the country as “hugely important.”

Despite the extensive development at Keflavík, Sveinn says the US Army’s plans do not include a permanent presence in the country.

American Government Taking Bids for Airport Construction Project

Army planes at Keflavík

The United States government has published a call requesting contractor bids for the design and construction of a new security area at the Keflavík airport, Vísir reports.

According to the ad posted on FedBizOpps.gov, the project will consist of the construct of “an aircraft apron expansion east of the existing hot cargo pad, a dangerous cargo pad with an access taxiway and a gravel beddown site with a utility enclosure.” The current cost estimate for the project is just over ISK 6 billion [$47.9 million; €42.7 million] and will be funded entirely by the American government.

Only bids from American and Icelandic companies will be accepted for the project. According to information from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, construction is scheduled to begin next year and is supposed to be completed by 2023.

Iceland Ups Defence Budget By 37%

Icelandic coast guard

Iceland’s defence budget for 2019 is ISK 2.185 billion ($17.7m/€15.7m), compared to ISK 1.592 billion ($12.9m/€11.4m) in 2017, Kjarninn reports. The numbers come from a report by the Minister for Foreign Affairs presented to the Parliament in April 2019. According to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the budget increase is largely due to four projects.

ISK 127 million ($1m/€900,000) was allocated for updating the radar system and military base systems. ISK 60 million ($486,000/€430,000) went to strengthening contract-bound support of host states, while ISK 50 million ($405,000/€360,000) went to routine defence exercises in accordance with NATO’s defence program. Finally, ISK 35 million were allocated to contract-bound maintenance of defence facilities.

The largest proportion of the funding goes toward operation of the Icelandic Coast Guard and Keflavík Airport, or ISK 1.519 billion ($12.3m/€10.9m). ISK 217 million ($1.8m/€1.6m) went toward solidarity operations.

According to the report, the foundation of Iceland’s defence policy is its membership in NATO and its 1951 Defence Agreement signed with the United States. Growing defence expenses are described as “having to do with growing commitments that Iceland has taken on within NATO and the increasing temporary presence of NATO forces at Keflavík Airport due to worsening security conditions in Europe, including in the North Atlantic.”

NATO Sends 6,000 Marines to Reykjavík This Week

Eight hundred soldiers will head to Þjórsárdalur valley in the southern highlands of Iceland to participate in NATO exercises this weekend, RÚV reports. According to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the exercises are not military in nature, rather involve a hike along pathways through the valley, and should not cause environmental damage.

The exercise will take place over two days and is a typical winter exercise for NATO forces. Each day, 400 soldiers will hike through the valley with equipment in order to experience cold climate conditions.

NATO exercises will also take place in Sandvík, Southwest Iceland this Wednesday and at Keflavík airport’s security area, where 400 US soldiers will practice landing and around 120 will practice responding to an attack on the Icelandic Coast Guard’s headquarters.

The Sandvík exercises are part of a larger NATO exercise called Trident Juncture 2018 which will take place mostly in Norway. The exercise is NATO’s biggest in recent years, involving 50,000 participants from 31 NATO countries and others. Around ten ships from NATO’s maritime forces carrying some 6,000 marines will arrive in Reykjavík next weekend from the US, Britain, Denmark, and Canada for an organisational conference on the exercise. The ships will continue on to Norway on Sunday.

Iceland’s Membership in NATO

NATO protest 1949

On March 30, 1949, a large crowd convened behind a school in central Reykjavík. They were protesting the government’s decision to join the North American Treaty Organi¬sation, then in its infancy. Once a sizeable throng had formed, the group marched on Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament. They were met by a group of NATO supporters who had surrounded the parliment building, in¬tending to defend it. A riot erupted between the two groups, who only dispersed after police deployed tear gas. Five days later, NATO was officially formed, with Iceland among its founding members.

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