Iceland Authorises US Submarines in Coastal Waters

Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

US Navy nuclear-powered submarines will be allowed to stop close to Iceland and the first one is expected soon. Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has specifically stated to the US authorities that these submarines cannot carry nuclear weapons in Iceland’s territorial waters.

According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, this decision is in line with Icelandic authorities’ policy to support increased surveillance by NATO states, increasing the security of marine infrastructure such as marine telecommunications cables in the ocean around Iceland. The frequency of the visits will be assessed according to need. The authorisation for submarines is not restricted to a specific period and there will likely be a few visits per year. Each time a submarine approaches, it musest request permission. Þórdís Kolbrún told Vísir that the decision was not only made to increase telecommunication security but also to fulfil obligations to NATO and defence in the North Atlantic.

The first submarine is expected soon. It will be allowed to restock supplies and bring on new crew members a few kilometres off the coast of Iceland but will not dock as Iceland doesn’t have the harbour infrastructure to support submarines. Þórdís states that the submarines will stop outside the Reykjanes peninsula.

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister stress that foreign military vessels’ arrival in Iceland is conditional on the respective country’s knowing and respecting Iceland’s National Security Policy which states that Iceland and Icelandic waters will not host nuclear weapons. This position has been reiterated in the Foreign Minister’s note to US authorities. Submarines authorised to stop in Icelandic waters will not carry nuclear weapons nor will they be fitted for such weapons. When asked if Icelandic authorities had any guarantee US authorities would comply with Iceland’s demands, Þórdís Kolbrún replies that it is a matter of trust.  “We base this on our solid communication with US authorities. These kinds of submarines don’t carry nuclear weapons. We have issued clear declarations and a clear policy and we’ve gotten confirmation that the Americans will honour it. Norway has a similar policy and their cooperation has been without issue for decades,” Þórdís stated.

All submarines in the service of the US Military are nuclear-powered. All seafaring vessels are authorised to cross Icelandic waters on peaceful missions, but foreign governments must apply to the foreign ministry if they want their vessels to stop Iceland’s territorial waters.

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.

Investigate Navy’s Role in Whale Beachings


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.”

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.