The US Navy has requested funding in the 2017 budget to upgrade the Keflavik air base in Iceland, ten years after its closure.
Reopening of the base is part of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), and signals not only greater US surveillance activities in the Arctic, but also the beginning of an increased long-term US interest and engagement in the north.
Closing the “GIUK-gap”
President Obama recently submitted to Congress a budget request from the Navy that included 21.4 million dollars to upgrade hangars and cleaning facilities for Poseidon P-8 surveillance aircraft.
The aircraft will be stationed at Keflavik on a rotational basis, and will amplify the US’ ability to maintain awareness of Russia’s submarine fleet, particularly in the so-called “GIUK gap”, the passages between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom. The aircraft will be an important tool in intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance.
US commitment to Europe
This funding request is part of the military’s European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), which is directed at assuring allies in Europe of US support in deterring further Russian aggressive activity. In the budget request, the Navy says this will “reassure allies of the US commitment to their security”.
The U.S. Navy currently flies submarine hunting missions from Keflavik with legacy P-3 Orion aircraft, but only after they have flown from the air base in Sigonella, Italy. According to defense analyst Brian Slattery, Arctic Security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, P-8 is a more capable aircraft, with a smaller crew and greater payload capacity. It can also operate with less infrastructure.
Improving operational capability
“The upgrades will mean that the P-8 aircraft may be maintained year-round at Keflavik, and will improve operational capability,” says Slattery.
Magnus Nordenman at Washington’s Atlantic Council expects no controversy in securing the Keflavik funding.
The request is expected to pass easily in Congress, given the bipartisan support for the military and the many calls for action to deter Russia.
“This is the beginning”
“Policy is what gets funded. This is the beginning of a longer-term investment and a larger US interest. Both Norway and Iceland have lobbied for a stronger US presence in these areas. Norway’s surveillance capabilities are limited, and this responds to Norwegian requests for more US attention in the north,” says Nordenman.
Norway working on white paper
Norway’s six Orion aircraft perform surveillance activities from the Andøya base in Nordland. These aircraft will have to be replaced within the next two decades, and the question of future capabilities will be addressed in the Government’s upcoming white paper on defense, expected this spring. The Norwegian Foreign Affairs Institute in Oslo, NUPI, recently published a report outlining some of the choices for the Norwegian surveillance capabilities in the future.
Manned aircrafts or drones?
While some advocate a transition to drones, others argue that manned aircraft will have to be part of the future, especially in areas where mishaps could lead to larger incidents. Drones are expected to play a larger role, but the plans for a stronger Poseidon presence in the north shows that the US will continue to rely on manned aircraft to keep track of developments in the Arctic for a long time to come.
Or a combination?
Obamas desire to reopen the Keflavik air base might be connected with Norway’s headaches about the aging Orion fleet. According to military experts, the tasks of the Norwegian fleet of Orion aircraft are more or less the same as those of the US’ Poseidons – surveillance of Russian submarine activity.
The NUPI report recommends a combination of manned and unmanned aircrafts for the surveillance operations needed to track the submarine activity in the north.
Whether an American deployment of P-3 Poseidons will relieve the Orions of some of their duties for Norwegian authorities is unclear. Norway’s defense is in a process of change, and the government’s white paper on defense is expected to address these issues in more detail.
There may be a need for Orions also in the future.
One reason is that the P-8 Poseidon is not nimble as the P-3 Orion. Kristin Pedersen, Chief of the 333-Squadron at Andøya, where Norway’s six P-3 Orions are deployed, says that the P-3 probably is a better plane when operating at low altitudes.
– Whether the American presence at Reykjavik will be helpful for Norwegian operations is primarily a political question, depending on the definition of the country’s spheres of interest. As the P-8 has the ability refuel in flight, it can stay in the air longer than the Orion, but that will of course claim an available tanker, Pedersen says.
It is also worth noting that the Norwegian Orions fulfill a dual role, also operating as coastal patrols, inspecting civil crafts such as fishing vessels as cargo ships. This limits their current surveillance capacity.
Crises or conflicts
Military analyst Harald Håvoll, the author of the NUPI study, says that Poseidon P-8, stationed at Keflavik and Lossiemouth (Scotland) will be significant for Norway. However, Håvoll points out that the US aircraft will be of greatest importance during times of crisis or conflict, rather than in normal peacetime operations.
Technically it would be possible for US and UK aircraft to cover surveillance in parts of the Barents Sea. From Keflavik and Lossiemouth the Poseidon P-8 would be able to reach the Barents sea and stay on station for three to four hours. (Because of Norway’s self-imposed restrictions, they cannot land in Norway.)
A scenario not wanted
But Håvoll emphasizes that such a scenario will be unwanted in peacetime. Norway and Russia have been successful in maintaining low tension in the north, partly because Norway handles NATO surveillance.
– Both parties accept each other’s presence and operations because Russians do not have to confront units from major NATO partners US and UK. For the Norwegian government, it would be very difficult to change this policy, Håvoll says to HNN.
Norway’s Chief of Defense, Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, has advised the closing of the 333-Squadron at Andøya. It is not yet clear what long-term surveillance options the government will choose.
Ministry of Defense spokesperson Ann Kristin Salbuvik says that right now, there are more questions than answers.
The Long Term Plan (white paper) will have to provide more information about how to maintain both high vigilance and low tension in the north. It will continue to be a balancing act – one that will be closely watched by both Moscow and Washington.
What is a fact though is that we are facing an increased surveillance in the high north.