The small island country of Iceland is located in a very strategic location in the Atlantic Ocean. Iceland – NATO member with a big role – has been a key component of NATO’s maritime security posture and in surveillance of the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. This is primarily due to the country’s geographic position between the North American continent and the British Isles and Europe. Iceland has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since its foundation in 1949. [1]

Map depicting the GIUK gap and Iceland
Map depicting the GIUK gap and Iceland

The Greenland Iceland United Kingdom (GIUK) gap is a term used to describe the area of the North Atlantic Ocean that Russian attack submarines need to traverse through to reach the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes and the coast of the United States. The Russian Northern Fleet operating out of its base in Murmansk has to cross the GIUK gap to deploy its submarines and surface vessels beyond the Barents and Norwegian Seas. Iceland, with its sea access and airport provides NATO an excellent base from which to conduct maritime surveillance of the GIUK gap.

In addition Iceland is an ideal base for stationing of Search and Rescue (SAR) vessels and aircraft. Its position in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean lends itself to aid in maritime emergencies for cargo ships, passenger ships, and fishing vessels. The Icelandic Coast Guard has offshore patrol vessels, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters to perform its security, law enforcement, and search and rescue missions.

Russian submarine capacity and activity has increased over the past few years and the technology gap between NATO and Russian capabilities in submarine warfare has decreased. [2] In addition, NATO has been faced with a resurgent Russia that is becoming more forceful in the international arena (Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, etc.).

Iceland Defense Force
Iceland Defense Force

In 2006 the United States, faced with military budget constraints and a seemingly diminished threat from the Russian Navy fleet, closed down military operations in Iceland.  From 1951 to 2006 the United States provided a military command called the Iceland Defense Force (IDF) to provide for the defense of Iceland – as the small country did not have a much of a military of its own. [3] However, it appears that the United States will be re-energizing its military presence in Iceland.

The United States has recently committed to provide funding for upgrades to the airfield in Keflavik, Iceland. [4] This will allow U.S. Navy’s P-9 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to keep tabs on Russian subs traveling through the GIUK gap. Currently the Navy’s P-3 Orion conducts this maritime patrol mission from Iceland.

If Russia continues its expansionist activities and increased naval activity then we may see a more active role by Iceland in NATO exercises and activities. In addition, we will likely see increased air and naval activity on and in the vicinity of Iceland by the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Norway and other NATO nations.


[1] See Iceland and NATO, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Iceland.
[2] For more on the growing military activity in the GUIK see “Invisible Contest: The Submarine Cat-and-Mouse Game”, News Deeply, May 6, 2016.
[3] See Iceland Defense Force, by WikipediA.
[4] See “Russian Subs Are Reheating a Cold War Checkpoint”, Defense One, March 4, 2016.


NATO, Iceland: NATO’s Eye in the North, May 25, 2016. This 4-minute long video highlights the strategic role that Iceland has within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


Featured image courtesy of wikipedia commons
Map of GIUK gap from CIA base map; details in red added by author.
Logo from Iceland Defense Force from WikipediA (Creative Commons license)