REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Russian aircraft and ships are on the move again, flying and sailing provocative missions that challenge the security and territorial boundaries of many nations — none more so than in northern Europe.
Several northern nations, prompted by those concerns, are meeting in Oslo on Tuesday, joined by the US, to discuss mutual security and cooperation. US Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, on a seven-day trip to the region, will be joined by his counterparts from founding NATO members Denmark, Iceland and Norway, along with traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden.
“NATO is faced with three problems,” Work explained Sept. 6 while en route to Iceland. “Two are directly related to a resurgent Russia,” he said, referring to Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Ukraine and to heightened activity around Europe. “And in the south of Europe they’re faced with a terrorist problem and a migrant problem — the result of situations in the Middle East.
“I’m focusing on the northern problem.”
Iceland, Work said, has become increasingly concerned with the Russian activity.
“The Russians have long done transit flights where they pass close by Iceland,” Work said, “but they’ve recently made several circumnavigation flights” — flying completely around the island nation. As a result, “Iceland is interested in increasing military cooperation.”
Work was in Iceland to talk — and listen, he emphasized — with Icelandic officials. He also toured the former US military air base at Keflavik, which is still maintained by Iceland even though the last US forces left in 2006.
The US has a long relationship with Iceland, and by treaty since 1951 continues to be responsible for the defense of the country. Iceland has no military, but the country’s coast guard fulfills most military missions, and is responsible for maintaining Keflavik as a military installation.
US aircraft occasionally still use the base’s facilities. Two F-16s landed there recently when they experienced mechanical difficulties flying across the Atlantic, and during his visit on Sept. 7, Work met with crews sent to fix the planes.
A US Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft also visited the base over several days in April to assess the feasibility of operating the aircraft at Keflavik, from where P-3 Orions regularly flew missions during and after the Cold War.
“The hangar built there to support P-3s is still there,” Work said before landing in Iceland. “I want to see it, make sure we can reactivate it.” One modification the hangar would need, he said, would be to cut a notch in the hangar door to accommodate the higher tail of the P-8.
“We have continued to maintain this base,” Senior Commander Jón Guŏnason, commander of the airbase, said during the tour on Monday.
“There is lots of empty space here,” he noted, “a lot of space for new construction and facilities.”
During the tour, he pointed out a number of facilities left over from the base’s hyperactive days that are maintained in operational or near-operational condition — barracks, command centers, fuel facilities, weapons storage facilities, and about 21 hardened aircraft shelters that date from the mid-1980s. Many installations are dispersed and constructed as protected bunkers.
Also present were four Danish F-16 fighters that operate from the Keflavik.
The base also maintains four active arresting gears, Guŏnason said, pointing out that one of the two US F-16s at the base for repairs used it after a failure of its hydraulic landing gear. Arresting gears are used on land installations by US Air Force aircraft in emergencies, although the gear in the aircraft is not suitable for shipboard use.
“Iceland made lot of effort to repair” the arresting gears after the US left, Guŏnason said, and the country has the continued support of the US Navy in maintain the system.
Guŏnason also pointed to a large hangar built to support B-52 bombers. But the facility is not in use, he noted, “and the future of it is unknown.”
But the old P-3 hangar is very much operational, Guŏnason declared, and is occasionally used by US aircraft during overnight stays.
“We hope to see more use of it,” he said.
The P-8 could also factor into the discussions in Norway and the UK. Norway is a longtime operator of the P-3, and although its fleet is well-maintained the aircraft are old. Britain largely gave up its long-range maritime surveillance capability when it retired the last of its Nimrod aircraft in 2011, before the Russian resurgence.
Work, making his first visit to Norway, noted the country is “an incredible partner. They have a longstanding relationship in coordinating P-3 flights, and we’d like to see what they can do to assist P-8 operations. They’re committed to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and they’re thinking about the P-8.”
While in Norway, Work will go to Trondheim, “to get a look at the caves where we preposition Marine gear, and in Bodo I’ll visit their joint command facility and get a familiarization flight aboard one of their P-3s.”
The visit to Britain will also see a first-time event.
“They’ve asked for our input as part of the Strategic Defense and Security Review,” Work said. “The British, in previous defense reviews, have talked with our individual services, but this is the first time they’ve asked for input from the [office of the secretary of defense]. This is an indication of the strength of our alliance.”
Work will cap off his UK visit with an address on the third offset strategy, an effort to offset the threats presented by potential opponents.
“It’s clear the northern tier is very concerned with what the Russians are up to,” Work said. “They’re anxious to have cooperative talks.”