First US Navy Submarine Service Stop in Icelandic Waters

USS San Juan (SSN 751) alongside an Icelandic Coast Guard ship

The American nuclear-powered submarine USS San Juan visited Iceland yesterday for a brief service stop in the waters outside of Garðskagi, Southwest Iceland. As per a US Navy press release, San Juan does not carry nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir announced on April 18 that nuclear-powered submarines of the US Navy would be authorised to make a brief service visit in Iceland to receive supplies and exchange crew members.

This decision by the Minister for Foreign Affairs is part of the Icelandic government’s policy to support increased monitoring and response capacity of Allied countries in the North Atlantic. In recent years, the Icelandic and US governments have increased cooperation to strengthen situational awareness and readiness in the North Atlantic.

A founding member of NATO, Iceland has hosted the organisation’s exercises in recent years. In 2019, Iceland upped its defence budget by 37%. Last year, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced another increase to the budget in response to the war in Ukraine, with a special emphasis on cyber security. Katrín also announced an increase in Iceland’s NATO funding at the time.

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.