Icelandic Gap Guardians

RAF Typhoon FGR.4s take-off from a frosty Keflavik Air Base in November 2019. (Crown Copyright)

Protecting NATO’s northern flank is a job not only entrusted to Norway, but also a rotation of Allied air force squadrons based in Iceland.

Norways Long Term Defence Plan

Norway is NATO’s northern guardian, whose continual military presence is a stabilising factor in the region as it maintains security on behalf of the northern European community.

A Long Term Defence Plan (LTDP) covering the period from 2017 to 2020 was approved by Norway’s government in November 2016 calling for a significant increase of spending to strengthen NATO’s ability for collective defence. Entering the last year of the LTDP with its goals having been fulfilled, the defence budget for 2020 will amount to almost $6.84 billion (Kr61 billion).

The Royal Norwegian Air Force’s (RNoAF) share of the budget, including the Rescue Helicopter Service, is about $770 million (Kr6.9 billion). In 2020, the introduction into service of the Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter aircraft and the new NH Industries NH90 helicopters, and increased activity in air defence units will continue. In addition, preparation for the transition to and reception of five new Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) to replace the RNoAF’s P-3C fleet from 2022 will continue.

MMF Programme

Norway has joined the NATO Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Fleet (MMF) programme as one of the six nations that will jointly operate a fleet of eight A330 MRTT aircraft that will be configured for inflight refuelling, the transport of passengers including VIPs and cargo, and medical evacuation flights.

It is already a participant in the multinational Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW), a multinational military airlift organisation based at Papa Air Base in Hungary which was officially activated in July 2009 as part of NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) programme operating three C-17A Globemaster III aircraft.


In 2008 Norway selected the F-35A to strengthen its ability to operate on and monitor NATO’s Northern flank. The RNoAF has a requirement for 52 F-35A aircraft which will be the largest defence procurement in Norwegian history.

Ørland Air Station has become the main operating base for the F-35A as well as the Raytheon/Kongsberg National Advanced Surface-to Air Missile System (NASAMS II) and the deployable base defence units. Evenes Air Station will house a NATO Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) detachment when the F-35 replaces the F-16 from 2022. As F-16 operations wind down in the early 2020s, Bodø Air Station will close.

Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II are replacing the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s fleet of F-16As. (Lockheed Martin)

Covering the Icelandic Gap

On 6 November 2019, Norway declared initial operating capability (IOC) status for its F-35As. Since receiving its first three examples of the fighter in November 2017, the RNoA’s fleet has grown to 22 aircraft, seven of which are stationed at Luke AFB in the United States as part of a multi-national training component. This year the RNoAF will  deploy its F-35As to Iceland to conduct NATO air-policing missions.

Icelandic Air Policing

Icelandic Air Policing is a NATO operation conducted to patrol Iceland’s airspace. Iceland does not have an air force while operational command of its defences is under the Icelandic Coast Guard.

As a member of NATO, Iceland allows Allied air units and radar installations to be stationed in its territory. When the United States Air Force (USAF) ceased deploying fighter units to the country in September 2006, and the US Iceland Defense Force was withdrawn, Iceland requested that its NATO allies periodically deploy fighter aircraft to Keflavik Air Base to provide protection of its airspace. The first deployment of aircraft took place in May 2008.

Since 2014 the aircraft deployed to Iceland have been placed on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status and flown armed patrols. It was decided to commence them in response to the deterioration in relations between Russia and NATO countries following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the conflict in Donbass, Ukraine.

Fighter aircraft deployed to Iceland are accompanied by NATO Boeing E-3A Sentry AWACS aircraft to enhance the Iceland Air Defence System radar network as well as other supporting aircraft as required.

In 2018, the deployments to Iceland came under the Allied Air Command and were controlled by NATO’s northern Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Uedem in Germany.

An average of three deployments are made per year involving four to six aircraft, with each lasting from three to four weeks.

Denmark Contribution

Royal Danish Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16AM fighters deployed to Iceland in April 2018. Denmark was one of the first members to contribute to NATO’s air policing of the airspace of Iceland and had on three previous occasions contributed to the mission, most recently in 2015. Denmark’s contribution to Iceland Peacetime Preparedness Needs (IPPN) consisted of four F-16A aircraft fighters and approximately 60 support personnel.

“Iceland is a close and important partner to Denmark. With this contribution Denmark furthermore demonstrates its wholehearted commitment to NATO’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture vis-a-vis Russia”, said the Danish Minister of Defence Claus Hjort Frederiksen.

The Danish deployment was followed by 14 UASF F-15C aircraft from the 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath in England with 300 personnel during August 2018.

Unknown Aircrafts

On 19 March 2019, two unknown aircraft entered NATO airspace near Iceland, according to the Icelandic Coast Guard which were later identified as Russian Tupolev Tu-142 (Bear F) long-range bombers. The two aircraft did not report to Icelandic air traffic control on entering the area, nor did they have their radar active.

Italian Aircrafts

Two Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons from 36° Stormo that were deployed to Iceland for NATO exercises flew to meet the aircraft. They were located in NATO airspace but outside Icelandic airspace. Russian military aircraft last entered the region in December 2018, but are regularly observed near Norway.

The Icelandic Foreign Affairs Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson stated that the Italian aircraft’s response was fully in line with NATO’s working regulations and that the incident was yet another example of the importance of airspace surveillance and air policing in Iceland.

Exercise IAS 2019

During exercise Icelandic Air Surveillance (IAS) 2019, airmen from the 480th Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, worked to establish air surveillance and interception coverage over Keflavik AB, Iceland, to maintain the integrity of the NATO airspace form 29 July to 10 August.

An Italian Air Force F-35A leave the hangar at Keflavik Air Base in October 2019. (Italian Air Force)

The primary focus of IAS 2019 was for the squadron’s F-16C pilots to do scramble alerts and get their flying certifications for intercept missions. Scramble alerts are used to test the amount of time it would take pilots to get from ground to air.

According to airman 1st Class Delia O’Toole, 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, who was supporting the squadron: “Take-offs during IAS 2019 were different than a normal takeoff process at Spangdahlem AB. In a normal process, crew chiefs communicate with the pilot through headsets. Both the pilot and crew chiefs have a longer time for aircraft checks and take-offs. The whole process is much more relaxed. The process in Iceland when the alarm goes off notifying us of a scramble alert, until the pilot is into the air, everything is moving fast, and it is important to stay calm and get it done and done the right way.”

First NATO F-35 Deployment

In October 2019 the Italian Air Force returned to Iceland with six F-35A aircraft of 32° Stormo thus becoming the first NATO country to employ the Lockheed Lightening II operationally within the Alliance.

During the 2,000nm transit from Italy to Iceland, the F-35s refuelled twice, once over northern Italy and once over Scotland, fuel being provided by an Italian Air Force Boeing KC-767A tanker provided by 14° Stormo, and a ATR P-72A ensuring the Oceanic Search and Rescue capability in case of need. All six jets were deployed by 25 September following the transit flight of around 5 hours 30 minutes, and started familiarisation flights two days later.

Beside the Flight component, the Operations Branch and the Maintenance Branch, which included some 50 technicians, a fourth element peculiar to the F-35 aircraft was part of Task Group Lighting, the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which allows F-35 operators to plan flights and maintenance of the new fighter. On 2 October the NATO evaluators stated the fully compliance and declared the Full Operational Capability (FOC) of the Italian detachment, two days ahead of schedule.

The TFA32 was obviously fully integrated into the NATO Air Defence System, scramble orders reaching the units via Link 16 directly from the CAOC in Uedem responsible for all the Alliance air activities north of the Alps. All was received on digital channels without any voice command, down to the single aircraft.

In less than a month the Italian F-35As flew 103 sorties, 14 at night, for a total of 159 flight hours. Eight to 10 sorties per day were planned, with some training missions involving all six Lighting II operating in a two versus four scenario or in a four versus two plus four virtual opponents injected by the embedded training system. Military flight activity in Iceland was scarce, which limited training with other assets.

RAF Deployment

The Italian deployment was followed by four Royal Air Force (RAF) Typhoons from No 1 (Fighter) Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. This was the first time since World War II that an RAF fighter squadron has been based in Iceland, close to the Arctic Circle. The deployment included 129 deployed RAF regular and reserve support personnel.

As well as being on 24-hour stand-by to scramble in response to unidentified aircraft flying towards Icelandic airspace, the Typhoon FGR.4s flew 59 training sorties and more than 180 practice intercepts during the month-long deployment.

Commenting on the RAF’s departure, Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland said: “It is safe to say that this first RAF NATO Air Policing peacetime mission in Iceland has been a success. We appreciate the support from a trusted ally and neighbour, and we look forward to welcoming the RAF back for its next mission in Iceland.”

UAV Services

In addition to the NATO air patrols, a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been used by the Icelandic maritime authorities to enhance the maritime picture over its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the service following a request made by the Icelandic Coast Guard to the European Maritime safety Agency (EMSA).

The UAV was integrated into the existing surveillance mechanisms and procedures covering coast guard functions in the areas of maritime safety and security, search and rescue (SAR), environmental protection, law enforcement and fisheries control.

The Hermes 900 in use was adapted to withstand the strong winds and icy conditions common to the North Atlantic Ocean. It has an endurance of over 12 hours and may perform maritime surveillance tasks in areas extending as far as 200nm from the shoreline. The operations are based at the Egilsstaðir Airport in the east of the island. From there, they have the capability to cover more than half of the Icelandic EEZ.

The EMSA/CeiiA Hermes 900 MALE UAV at Icelands’s Egilsstaðir Airport for maritime surveillance over the country’s EEZ. (EMSA)

EMSA’s UAV services for Iceland involved the cooperation of several Icelandic authorities, who were able to follow the missions remotely thanks to EMSA’s UAV data centre. In addition to the Icelandic Coast Guard, users included the fisheries directorate, the environment agency, the customs directorate, the police force, and the search and rescue association.

The Hermes 900 UAS is under contract by EMSA from the Portuguese company, Centre of Engineering and Innovation (CEiiA). Using SATCOM technology, it can operate beyond radio line of sight. The payload consists of electro-optical and infra-red (EO/IR) video cameras, maritime radar, a receiver for an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that detects signals from registered vessels and an emergency position-indicating radio beacon EPIRB receiver.

EMSA’s UAV services were set up in 2017 for maritime surveillance and monitoring operations to support national authorities involved in coast guard functions including maritime pollution and emissions monitoring, detection of illegal fishing, anti-drug trafficking, and illegal immigration, border surveillance, and search and rescue operations.

EMSA did not conclude the two-year contract for the flights in Iceland directly with Elbit Systems, but with CeiiA at a reported cost of $64.6 million (€59 million), which can be extended by a further two years.

by David Oliver