Geostrategic significance of the North Atlantic

Fróðskaparsetur Føroya og Forsvarskakademiet í Danmark ásamt utanríkisráðuneytum Færeyja og Danmerkur. Þórshöfn, 7. apríl 2022

It might be said that for some 25 years until 2016 the High North and the North Atlantic region were not regarded as a space of special concern by NATO. We felt this in Iceland in 2006 by the closure of the American naval base in Keflavik.

In a communiqué of the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016 it is however stated that in the North Atlantic, as elsewhere, the Alliance will be ready to deter and defend against any potential threats, including against sea lines of communication and maritime approaches of NATO territory. In this context, NATO will further strengthen its maritime posture and comprehensive situational awareness.

This new military posture is still being developed. We have noticed it in Iceland with new infrastructure at Keflavik and increased activity both of maritime surveillance aircraft and air force fighters and bombers.

In the communiqué of the NATO summit in Brussels in June 2021 the High North is mentioned for the first time and stated that NATO will continue to undertake necessary, calibrated, and coordinated activities in support of the Alliance's security interests. The aim is to strengthen cooperation with relevant and like-minded partners in the interests of NATO's agreed deterrence and defence objectives.

We still do not know how drastic the effects of the present war in Ukraine will be. In the North Atlantic there is bound to be more NATO awareness and presence.

The question remains, however, if NATO is going to draw and implement special defence plans for the High North.

IMG_4737Danskt eftrilitsskip/herskip í Þórshöfn 7. apríl 2022. Þyrlan var að hefja sig til flugs til viðhalds á Íslandi.

The Norwegian Sea and the GIUK-gap are the only open maritime areas from the Polar region to the high seas. The Russian Bastion defence area for its long-range ballistic nuclear submarines extends all the way down to Iceland´s northeast corner. This strategic area has a growing geopolitical relevance.

In this regard I want to make three points:

First. In December 2013 President Putin ordered his top military officers to pay „particular attention to the deployment of infrastructure and military units in the Arctic “. This has been done since in an area which is behind 20% of Russia´s exports and 10% of its GDP.

Second. In 2018 the US re-established its Second Fleet, the Atlantic Fleet as NATO was „refocusing on the Atlantic in recognition of the great power competition prompted by a resurgent Russia," to quote a Pentagon spokesman. NATO's new Atlantic Command was declared operational in a ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia in September 2020. NATO had not dedicated headquarters to the Atlantic since 2003.

Third. Towards the end of March 2022, the British Government published its Defence Contribution in the High North stating that as a leading European NATO Ally, the UK is prepared to defend its Arctic Allies and respond to aggression.

Arctic cooperation is based upon respect for a rules-based world order and international cooperation in research and science as confirmed in the declarations of the Arctic Council. The Arctic region is also largely governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and a confused mixture of laws and bilateral agreements with climate change increasingly stressing this legal and policy framework.

To look at the Arctic as a low-tension area may be wishful thinking with reference to the war in Ukraine where international laws have been broken and the aggressor thought he might have a free hand as NATO had no defence plans or obligations for a non-member nation.

By strengthening Allied defences in the High North, the temptation for Putin to show and eventually use his military power will be reduced. NATO has to show a clear intent in the north.

Increased export of US liquid natural gas to reduce European dependence on Russian gas calls for more NATO surveillance on the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

Iceland has over 70 years, since 1951, had a bilateral defence agreement with the US. Until 2006 there was a permanent US military presence at Keflavik with up to 5.000 personnel stationed there.

After 2006 the Icelandic Coast Guard, a civilian institution, is responsible for operational tasks in Iceland providing Host Nation Support to rotating military units using the so-called NATO Security Zone at Keflavik Airport. The Coast Guard also runs Iceland Air Defence Systems, its remote radar and communication sites, which are an integral part of NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System.

Since 2008 rotating units of interceptors performing NATO Air Policing have operated from Iceland. P-8A Maritime Patrol Aircraft are now almost constantly located at Keflavik. The UK is willing to deploy its RC- 135W aircraft to support Icelandic air policing on an opportune basis.

In the autumn of 2018, the Trident Juncture NATO exercise started in Iceland and from 2 April to 14 April the periodic exercise Northern Viking 2022 takes place in Iceland and surrounding waters. Its main purpose is to practice the defence of the sea routes around Iceland and important security infrastructure, as well as search and rescue operations at sea and on land.

Just over 700 participants are expected to take part in the exercise in Iceland, around half of whom will be situated at Keflavik. Naval vessels, amongst them the new British aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales, are visiting Reykjavík harbour during the exercise.

Three US Air Force B-2 stealth bombers were operating from Keflavik for two and a half weeks late August 2021.They trained with US and British fighter jets over the North Sea and also with Norwegian F-35s. This was the first time the B-2 operated continuously from Iceland.

B-2s first flew to Iceland in September 2019, but that was just a refuelling stop as they then operated out of the UK.

The US Air Force labelled the deployment of the B-2s to Iceland as a „historic deployment “.

Let me at the end highlight that none of this has created any problems in Icelandic politics. We realise that we must stand by our NATO obligations taking into consideration geostrategic facts.