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reflections

Sep 28, 2006 | 06:15 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The U.S. Withdrawal from Iceland

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The U.S. Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland will formally close on Saturday after more than 50 years of operation, leaving essentially no military presence whatsoever in all of Iceland. U.S. forces in Iceland once included some 5,000 personnel as well as fighter jets, maritime patrol planes, combat search-and-rescue transports and helicopters, tankers, and a small detachment of U.S. Marine Corps Security Forces. The U.S. presence has already been drawn down to only a few hundred personnel and a couple of warplanes. Keflavik served as the host command for NATO in Iceland and has been a key strategic location for U.S. forces. In World War II, Iceland was an essential basing point for anti-submarine patrols for interdicting German U-boats transiting to the North Atlantic, where they would wreak havoc with Allied convoys from the United States; and Keflavik is situated in the middle of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, perhaps the most significant naval chokepoint of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the bulk of the Soviet navy had to transit the GIUK gap to reach the open ocean since the ports of the Northern fleet were — and still are — all on or behind the Kola peninsula east of Finland. This transit was so important that the United States lined the ocean floor with hydrophone sensors designed to detect and track a surge in Soviet submarines pouring into the North Atlantic in a major European war. The naval station would have been nothing more than a speed bump in a full Soviet onslaught, but it was a true battleground of the Cold War and remains the front door to the North Atlantic for the Russian navy. But, just as the structure and allocation of U.S. forces has changed dramatically in Germany and South Korea, the U.S. presence in Iceland no longer reflects the most pressing geopolitical realities. Despite the fact that Iceland, the only NATO member country with no military whatsoever, will be left essentially defenseless after the departure of U.S. forces, it may still seem like Iceland is safe. After all, the Berlin wall fell, the Cold War ended and the Soviet navy has mostly rusted away. The Russian navy, however, still looms in a very real sense. Russian ballistic missile submarines still occasionally sail through the gap and into the Atlantic, where they can, if they choose, park dozens of nuclear warheads in international waters off the U.S eastern seaboard. The Russian navy is attempting to construct a new class of ballistic missile submarines and field a new submarine-launched ballistic missile based on the land-based Topol-M. These parallel developments have been plagued by problems and are behind schedule, but it is still a very real possibility that Russia will succeed in streamlining and modernizing the naval leg of its nuclear triad — and either way, the Russian nuclear arsenal isn't going away. For this reason, while Washington is almost certainly shifting some of the weight of patrolling the GIUK gap to its NATO allies — especially Britain — it will never fully relinquish responsibility for the gap. The U.S. military does continue to shift toward a more expeditionary stance, despite commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. These particular conflicts will resolve themselves in one way or another in the coming decade. Strategic planners have not forgotten about Russia, but they have shifted away from large, looming troop presences. That is exactly what they accomplish by closing Keflavik. The facilities will remain available for a surged expeditionary presence. In the meantime, one of several things must have happened. The hydrophone sensor warning net could have been upgraded (perhaps a final Cold War-era upgrade has belatedly been completed); other technologies — space-based or otherwise — might have matured that rely less heavily on the network or leave it entirely outmoded; or, since the Russians can no longer flood the gap with a hundred attack submarines, the coverage provided by British maritime patrol planes and U.S. and NATO submarine patrols has perhaps been deemed sufficient. Whatever the case, the departure from Keflavik should not be seen so much as a demise of the U.S. concern about the Russian navy, but rather as an end to constant, manned maritime air patrols.

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