The Navy’s construction of a former air base in Iceland does not necessarily mean that U.S. troops will again be stationed in the country, according to Navy officials.
In response to an increased Russian naval presence in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, the Navy is renovating a hangar to accommodate submarine-hunting P-8A Poseidon aircraft, reported Stars and Stripes.
The Navy was awarded nearly $36 million for the construction project in the two most recent defense budgets as part of an initiative that began after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Naval Air Station Keflavik, which once was home to 5,000 troops, was deactivated in 2006 after serving as a way-station during World War II and the Cold War.
It has been all but abandoned since, save the occasional one or two aircraft operating out of Iceland during a military exercise, according to Cmdr. Pamela Rawe, spokesperson for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa.
Recent renovations do not indicate any permanent return of U.S. troops, she added.
“While Iceland remains a strong NATO ally, the U.S. has no plans to re-establish a permanent presence in Iceland,” Rawe told Stripes.
However, experts predict more patrolling in the “GIUK gap” — the region that includes Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom — as Moscow continues to send more sophisticated submarines and surface warships.
The vital maritime area is the entryway for Russia’s northern fleet into the Atlantic Ocean, and is also known as the North Atlantic’s chokepoint, making Iceland’s geographical positioning an asset for NATO.
It is “the unsinkable aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic that you can fly from,” Magnus Nordenman, of the Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council, told Stripes. “It’s had enduring importance for the defense of the North Atlantic.”
Russia has not patrolled the North Atlantic this frequently since the end of the Cold War, and its increased presence is sparking renewed attention from NATO, which has debated creating a new “Atlantic Command” to focus on what has been labeled an emerging threat.
“For decades the North Atlantic didn’t matter. The Russian fleet was barely moving out of port,” Nordenman said. “That’s changed with Russian aggressiveness. There really is a return of focus.”
The restorations are “in full coordination with the government of Iceland,” said Rawe, but not without mixed opinions, given Iceland’s status as a pacifist country without a military.
“This should probably not come as a surprise after the discussion that’s been going on about preparedness, especially in our waters,” Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told the Reykjavik Grapevine. “I have also spoken with the foreign minister about the matter and there are no plans for any permanent long-term (military) presence, which to my mind is important.”