Delegation of Iceland to NATO
Brussels

10.04.2006

Iceland in NATO

Commandant, Officers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be able to visit the NATO Defence College once again and present to you "Iceland in NATO".

Some of you will no doubt have seen an article published in the International Herald Tribune three weeks ago under an eye-catching title, stretched across the page: "Isolated for Centuries in the Foggy Atlantic, Icelanders Open Up". If anyone thought, after reading that article, that we Icelanders were finally ready to come out of the woodworks and tell our story to the world, I am sure I will not disappoint anyone in this audience at least when I say that you can expect no such thrill today. From the point of view of defence and security, one might even say that the attention-grabbing news has been somewhat late in arriving, since Iceland has in fact been a full - and far from isolated - member of our transatlantic security community for over fifty years. But, alas, the most truthful accounts do not always make for the most titillating story.

Introduction

Today, I propose to do the following:

Firstly, as any good brick-layer would do, start with the larger and more lasting chunks of material, explaining the "immutables" of Iceland's security and defence policy.

Secondly, outline how Iceland is responding to some of the main challenges confronting the Alliance member states at this moment.

Thirdly, describe the arrangements that have been made for Iceland's defence on the basis of a bilateral agreement with the United States.

Fourthly, point out how those arrangements are gradually being adapted.

Fifthly and finally, conclude with a few general observations on the transatlantic link and Iceland's role in NATO.

Enduring aspects of Iceland's security and defence

Having just watched the promotional video on Iceland, generously provided by Col. Berg, you will already be in possession of at least one relevant insight into the Icelandic psyche; we tend to have a healthy and robust opinion of ourselves. Leaving aside whether this should count as an enduring aspects of Iceland's security and defence policy, I would like to point out at least four basic factors that certainly do shape our destiny as a nation in a variety of ways: geography, population size, the absence of national military forces and the economy. Even if you knew nothing else, I submit that you might, on that basis, be able to foresee a number of important constraints that affect Iceland's approach to security and defence.

Geography: By looking at the map, you will readily understand the role of geography in the formulation of our country's policies. Located where vital maritime interests of neighbouring countries on both sides of the Atlantic intersect, Iceland has for centuries been of considerable geostrategic significance. This was recognized by, among others, a famous German geopolitician, later quoted by Sir Winston Churchill, who said that whoever controlled Iceland held a revolver constantly pointed at Great Britain, Canada and the United States.

Population size and absence of national military forces: During the cold war in particular, the strategic importance of Iceland created demands for effective arrangements far in excess of the limited resources available to the Icelanders. Even though an argument could be made that a national armed force might have been able to take on some of the burdens of defending the country, the sheer magnitude of the task would have dwarfed the capabilities of a Iceland's small population, just under 280.000 at the latest counting. Unable to muster the required capabilities of its own, Iceland has sought to safeguard its security mainly through co-operative arrangements, becoming a founding member of NATO in 1949 and a partner of the United States on the basis of a bilateral defence agreement two years later.

The economy: The wisdom of the adage "it is the economy, stupid" resonates also outside the United States. Unlike the highly diversified economies of most Western European countries, Iceland has a relatively one-sided economic structure, depending essentially on fisheries and maritime products for its livelihood. In recent years such products have accounted for approximately 75% of total Icelandic exports of goods. This is why the protection of the fishing grounds and fish stocks has been among the most important planks of Iceland's foreign policy. It also provides at least one main reason why Iceland has not sought to join the European Union so far, even as Iceland has enjoyed preferential access for most of its products to the EU market as a party to the so-called European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement. As long as the Common Fisheries Policy, based on the premise that fisheries resources are in principle the common property of the member states, remains what it is, an Icelandic application for EU membership is not in prospect any time soon.

Increasingly, however, Icelanders are prepared to view their relationship with the rest of Europe in a wider context, as the EU takes further steps towards economic and political integration, the areas of security and defence included.

Responding to challenges

Now that I have indicated where we are coming from, let me address how Iceland is responding to some of the foremost challenges confronting the Alliance at this moment. I will confine myself for the time being to issues that are common to the Alliance, leaving those that are specific to Iceland for later.

As you are aware, Alliance Foreign Ministers just concluded their regular Winter meeting in Brussels last Friday, meeting also with partners, including Russia and Ukraine. The meeting took place almost half way between the Washington Summit and the next Alliance Summit widely expected to held in the year 2002. It was therefore an opportunity both for stock-taking since Washington and for beginning the process of mapping the way forward, although, as everyone understands, the new incoming U.S. administration will have a great deal to say about that subject also.

Predictably, the Balkan situation was among the issues dominating Ministers´ agenda, although the meeting will probably go down in history as one that dealt primarily with ESDI. With no major threat to our security looming on the horizon, member countries would seem to share the view that the Alliance is likely to witness a continuing shift of emphasis from so-called core tasks to new missions of the kind we have overseen in the Balkans. This is consistent with the Alliance's updated strategic concept, which makes clear that in addition to its fundamental security tasks, the Alliance will concern itself with crisis-management and partnership. Such a shift will in no way detract from the intrinsic value of collective defence, which remains, in any case, the basis of Alliance efforts in the area of co-operative security. It does, however, call for ever closer co-operation and dialogue with other countries in the Euro-Atlantic area, including, of course, Russia. In addition, it is going to require more resources and better use of existing ones.

It is this challenge of crisis response or peace support operations that I would like to address in particular and explain what Iceland is doing to participate in such missions, as well as in partnership activities. I will return to ESDI, the other big issue confronting Ministers last Friday, a bit later.

I do not wish to hide anything from you. From a compilation of tables, circulated by the Secretary-General at the meeting of Defence Ministers earlier this month, it appears that Iceland is carrying less than its share of the common burden. Our personnel strength in KFOR over the last twelve months fails to register and our contribution to SFOR fares little better with 0.01%. In terms of averages deployed for peacekeeping as a percentage of population, it appears that Iceland comes at the bottom of the heap with 0.0011%.

Well, you might ask, Mr. Ambassador, what do you say to that? First, I should acknowledge that, yes, we should be doing more. But second, I am obliged to point out that we cannot and should not, perhaps, be applying a rigidly uniform standard to contributions made by different member countries of the Alliance. In the tables I referred to there is a footnote explaining that Iceland has no armed forces. Think for a moment what that implies. It implies among other things that there is no permanent structure for recruitment and training for armed personnel to be sent on peace-keeping missions. All such personnel needs to be recruited on a voluntary basis by the Government, meaning that the specialized jobs involved need to be made attractive or lucrative enough for private citizens to apply. The relative shortage of citizens having the necessary skills for such jobs obviously limits Iceland's choices when it comes to operations of military character.

The absence of military organization does not prevent Iceland from doing its part in crisis management or peace support operations. It does, however, require that we funnel such resources as are available into the civilian aspect of crisis management or that part of military operations that allow for the participation of a civilian component. Over the last decade, a number of Icelandic health personnel were trained to serve with Norwegian forces and subsequently United Kingdom forces in Bosnia. A medical team has served with SFOR and KFOR and engineering expertise has been contributed to KFOR headquarters. The United Nations international police task force in Bosnia and Kosovo employ a number of Icelandic policemen and Icelanders have participated in various UNMIK-, OSCE- and NGO-activities in Kosovo. All in all, around fifty Icelandic professionals have been deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo to date.



Icelandic medical team training for participation in SFOR in 1998


In pointing out such numbers, I am not trying to absolve my own country from responsibility for doing more. At a time when the accent within our Alliance is increasingly on boosting European military capabilities, there is growing recognition among Icelanders that they should take a more visible part in regional conflict prevention and crisis management.

A report issued by a Working Group of Iceland's Foreign Ministry in February of last year marked a new departure in this respect. Two ideas stood out in the report. It was proposed, firstly, that participation in multilateral peace support operations should become a regular feature of Iceland's engagement in security affairs and secondly, that institutional and organizational measures should be undertaken by the Foreign Ministry to co-ordinate such participation systematically.

Initial steps have since been taken to spell out and implement such a policy. At the European Union Capabilities Commitment Conference on 21 November last, Iceland's Foreign Minister announced the Government's intention to increase Iceland's participation in crisis management and peace support activities and for that purpose to establish a Crisis Response Unit for international missions. The unit will consist of civilians of different professional backgrounds, including police officers, health personnel and engineers. In the next 2-3 years a roster of up to 100 personnel will be compiled, enabling the Government to field up to 25 trained professionals at any given time. As a further step, based on the experience obtained, the latter number may gradually be doubled.

This announcement signals a substantial leap forward in terms of Iceland's input to our joint efforts in the field. Although the Crisis Response Unit has been offered as a supplementary contribution to the EU´s Headline Goal, it will be duly taken account of in Alliance defence planning, bearing in mind the need to ensure maximum coordination between the efforts undertaken by the two organizations, NATO and the EU. It may also serve as a pool for missions undertaken by other organizations, not least the UN and the OSCE.

Turning to partnership activities, the hosting of a series of Partnership for Peace disaster relief exercises, in cooperation with the United States, is another element in Iceland's ongoing adaptation to the new security environment. Known as Co-operative Safeguard, the last such exercise, revolving around the rescue of a crippled vessel at sea, took place in June of this year. I should point out that these PfP exercises are in some ways unique or unusual, since they are conducted under the direction of civilian agencies, such as the Icelandic Civil Defence Agency, allowing participants to draw valuable lessons in civil-military relations. Among partners, Russia showed a particularly keen interest in capitalizing on the exercise, participating with a contingent of 130 people, two transport aircraft, two helicopters and an air deployable field hospital. Also noteworthy is that this was the first PfP exercise the Russians take part in after Kosovo, just as Co-operative Safeguard ´97 was the first they participated in following the signature of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. To date, I am not aware of Russian participation in other PfP exercise following the Kosovo episode.

Arrangements for Iceland's defence

Let me now describe the arrangements that have been made for the defences of Iceland, adding, where needed, a bit of historical background.

Iceland's defence is based on the twin pillars of NATO membership and a bilateral defence agreement with the United States.

The bilateral agreement, fifty years old in the new year, has antecedents in the arrival of United States marines in Iceland in July 1941 to replace British forces who had occupied Iceland the year before. The marines´ arrival was, interestingly enough, six months prior to the active engagement of the United States in the Second World War. Based on lessons learned in the course of the war, the United States sought and obtained in 1946 an agreement to use Keflavík airfield to support its military presence in Europe. The agreement represented Iceland's first voluntary step, since reclaiming independence from Denmark in 1918, from a neutral stance to direct engagement in European security affairs. The change of orientation was confirmed three years later when Iceland became a founding member of NATO.

Under the auspices of NATO, the Government negotiated a bilateral defence agreement with the United States in 1951. One reason why Iceland considered the time ripe to conclude such an agreement emanated as far afield as the Korean peninsula. In the words of the agreement, the two parties undertook "because of the unsettled state of world affairs" to make arrangements for the use of facilities in Iceland in the interest of defence of the country and thereby also the North Atlantic Treaty area. These arrangements came to include, among other things, an active air defence capability, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and a sound surveillance system (SOSUS) in the ocean areas adjacent to Iceland.

Based on the bilateral defence agreement, the United States has remained Iceland's closest ally throughout the post-war period. But other allies are also involved in the Iceland Defence Force (IDF). Today, there are approximately nineteen hundred United States servicemen, mainly navy, stationed at Keflavík, sixteen from the Netherlands and one from Norway, Denmark and Canada each. The NATO Security Investment Programme (NSIP) contributes a major part of all new facility and maintenance cost at Keflavik, which reaffirms the joint NATO character of the operation. Around nine hundred Icelanders are currently employed by the Defence Force. Although operations at the base retain a certain local economic significance, their impact on the national economy has been greatly reduced.

Today, the role of the Defence Force consists mainly of the following five fields of activity:

Air Defence: The air defence of Iceland is currently based on an integrated radar system and a minimum of four F-15 fighter jets of the US air force. The fighter planes are accompanied by one refuelling aircraft (KC - 135) and supported by a search and rescue (SAR) unit of four Pavehawk helicopters. It is understood that Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft will be provided as necessary, but previously such aircraft were deployed to Iceland permanently. Radar stations are operated in all four corners of the island.

Ground defence: A ground defence unit of approximately 100 marines is based in Iceland, to be reinforced by a US National Guard Brigade in a time of crisis. Ground defence exercises are conducted every two years under the name of Northern Viking. The Icelandic Government, including the Special Unit of the State Police, participates in these exercises.

Maritime defence: The Defence Force is involved in maritime defence, including the defence of the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to and from the island in wartime. In wartime it would be the responsibility of CINCEASTLANT under Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) to defend the SLOCs. Other than that, the Icelandic Coast Guard is responsible for regular surveillance Iceland's economic zone and territorial waters.

Submarine surveillance: Submarine surveillance is an important aspect of the Defence Force. Five anti-submarine aircraft, including one Dutch aircraft, permanently based at Keflavík, carry out this function.

Search and rescue operations: The Defence Force plays an important support role in search and rescue operations at sea and on land in co-operation with the Icelandic Coast Guard. The extent of this assistance has been reduced as a result of improvements in Coast Guard equipment. In the course of more than twenty five years, the search and rescue units of the Defence Force have participated in about three hundred rescue operations at sea and on land, in many cases under highly demanding and life-threatening circumstances.

The role of the Commander of the Defence Forces is, broadly speaking, twofold. He is commander of United States forces at the Naval Air Station and responsible for coordinating the defence roles of the fleet, air force and ground forces. He is also responsible to CINCEASTLANT, under Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) as regards co-ordination and defence planning of the Alliance for Iceland and the adjacent areas. In wartime, the majority of United States military units in Iceland would be transferred to NATO command.

The Alliance, as you know, reorganised and simplified its system of military command in 1998. According to the new command system, Iceland is a detachment of regional headquarters Allied Command Eastern Atlantic (EASTLANT) in Northwood, the United Kingdom, and retains its place in NATO's command structure.

In Iceland there is no separate Ministry of Defence. Within the Foreign Ministry, a Defence Department, led by a civilian of Ambassadorial rank, is responsible for the implementation of the Defence Agreement and for ensuring that the defence of the country is consistent with Government policy. No changes are made in the activities of the Defence Force without consultation with Icelandic authorities. A separate body, the Defence Council, consisting of representatives of the Icelandic Government and the Defence Force, supervises implementation of the bilateral defence relationship.

Adapting to change

I mentioned earlier that the bilateral defence agreement would soon be reaching the ripe age of fifty. Since it originated in what is described in the words of the agreement itself as an "unsettled" state of world affairs, it is legitimate to ask whether that particular premise still holds.

In some ways, as we all know, the world remains a dangerous place. The Alliance's new Strategic Concept bears witness to a wide variety of military and nonmilitary risks which are multidimensional and often difficult to predict. They include ethnic and religious rivalries, territorial disputes, inadequate or failed efforts at reform, the abuse of human rights, the dissolution of states, as well as terrorism; all possible sources of conflict that can have consequences in distant places in our globalized age. As the Canadian Minister of Defence recently observed, a shot fired in Kosovo can now be heard in Toronto.

But there have also been many positive developments in our strategic environment. The Alliance member countries are no longer confronted with the threat of a massive attack across their borders and the likelihood of armed conflict being brought to the shores of the Nordic countries, including Iceland, is remote. The once all-powerful Northern fleet of Russia, the main reason for the modernization of military infrastructure and defence installations in Iceland in the nineteen eighties, has deteriorated due to lack of training and maintenance. The fleet still has important strategic value, owing to its remaining nuclear submarines. Nevertheless, it is a good question whether the relative disrepair of the Russian navy is beginning to pose risks of a totally different order, as witnessed during the Kursk-incident in August. Be that as it may, this tragic incident has hopefully brought Russia and NATO a step closer. Cooperation between the two on search and rescue at sea, agreed at the PJC Defence Ministerial earlier this month, will no doubt serve to strengthen the relationship further.

In response to such changes, all our countries have made and are continuing to make adjustments. Operations at the Keflavik base have been no exception. In recent years, the number of troops has been reduced by over a third and the number of anti-submarine aircraft by more than a half. The number of fighter aircraft has been cut from twelve to four and all Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft have been withdrawn.

But to adjust is not, of course, simply to downsize and economize, especially since new tasks and missions are creating new demands on resources. In addition to seeking a larger role in multilateral peace-support efforts, Icelanders have taken steps to assume greater responsibility for the nation's defence. The following five areas could be mentioned:

Firstly, the operation and maintenance by the Icelandic Radar Agency of one of the world's most sophisticated air defence systems (IADS), launched in 1998. A NATO decision last year to add a Link-16 capability to the system will only increase its operational effectiveness. The Radar Agency is operated by more

than seventy Icelanders. Furthermore, approximately twenty Icelanders operate a software support facility.

Secondly, the decision to build a destroyer size coast guard vessel (3000 tons) and, in co-operation with United States military authorities, adjust technical specifications of this vessel and the procurement of equipment to allow for its joint use with the Iceland Defence Force, including search and rescue missions and maritime surveillance. Further areas of co-operation are being explored, including the transferring of the functions of the navy's bomb disposal unit to the Icelandic Coast Guard.

Thirdly, enhancing overland and low-level airspace training capacity in Iceland for United States and other NATO aircraft.

Fourthly, more active support for the so-called Northern Viking series (since 1983) of bilateral ground/air and maritime defence exercises by Icelandic civil institutions, including the coast guard, civil defence and police. Other NATO countries have also participated in these exercises, the last of which took place a year ago.

Finally, Iceland has taken a seat on NATO's Military Committee, providing direct liaison between the Alliance's highest military authorities and the permanent mission of Iceland to the organization.

These, then, are some of the steps that are being taken by the Icelandic Government towards a more proactive posture in the area of defence. Needless to say, we have not reached the end of the road. Given the uncertainty that still prevails in the world around us, no one can predict what the future will bring. Regular consultations with our U.S. allies will in any case continue and a bilateral High Level Group was set up earlier this year to examine some aspects of existing arrangements more closely. In addition, the U.S. Government has requested discussions next year to review an Agreed Minute to the bilateral defence agreement from 1996.

The transatlantic link and Iceland's role in NATO

I hope to have given you some idea of how Icelanders are responding to our evolving security environment. In so doing, we remain, as you might expect, guided by our own enduring national security and defence interests, including, most importantly, Iceland's role in the transatlantic relationship. Before concluding, allow me therefore to make a few observations on this subject, especially since this is where the main themes I have discussed, including our defence relationship with the United States and our contribution to European security and defence, converge.

The strategic aspect of the transatlantic link, from the point of view of Iceland as well as the Alliance as a whole, is captured in the latest NATO Defence Planning Review agreed by Alliance Defence Ministers earlier this month:

Iceland's geographic position provides an important link between Europe and North America. It is of strategic importance to the Alliance northern sea and airlines of communication; for reinforcement, resupply and long-range force projection; and for the surveillance of ship, submarine and air activity in the north Atlantic.

For Icelanders, however, the concept of a transatlantic link is reinforced by two other features, one geological, the other cultural. Let me briefly explain each in turn.

Geologically speaking, Iceland straddles the midatlantic ridge, where the North American and Eurasian continental plates come together. As it happens, the ravine where East meets West was the site of the world's oldest parliament, the Althing, established in the tenth century.

This island's geological setting is in some ways symbolic for the cultural aspect. Icelanders came from Europe and established the first European settlements in North America exactly one thousand years ago. For this and many other reasons, Icelanders share a bond of friendship and common heritage with the peoples of both continents. In a year when Icelanders celebrate the discovery America by Leif Eiriksson, son of Iceland and grandson of Norway, it is not, perhaps, surprising that this aspect of the transatlantic relationship has acquired special prominence.

There is a reason why now is as good a moment as any to ponder the abiding relevance of the transatlantic link. The European Union Council Summit has recently concluded in Nice. For the first time, the EU has launched its own specific structures for security and crisis management and established a Headline Goal in the defence planning field. This is an effort which enjoys the broad support of all Allies, who want to see more of Europe in NATO translate into more of NATO.

But concerns have also been expressed. Some worry that the emphasis placed by the EU on the autonomy of decision-making may bring about an "EU-caucus" and undermine decisions by consensus within the Alliance. Others warn that we may end up with a duplicative and wasteful system of defence planning, limiting cooperation and transparency between the two organizations. Clearly, if either of those scenarios were ever to materialize, it would be a setback for our Alliance. Understandably therefore, much effort is being invested in getting permanent NATO-EU structures and other aspects of the relationship right.

As one of six non-EU European Allies, Iceland has approached the ESDI/ESDP complex of questions on the basis of its NATO membership and associate membership of the WEU. We wish to see ESDP succeed and have supported assured permanent access to NATO planning capabilities and assets by the EU. At the same time, we have been keen to see the so-called participation issue resolved in a manner satisfactory to all concerned, consistent with the results of the Alliance Summit in Washington last year. In our view, the non-EU European Allies should be assured of a role in EU decision-shaping, based on existing consultation arrangements within the WEU, which is not to say that we wish in any way to challenge the autonomy of the EU itself. It is true that the participation issue will have a bearing on our own influence vis-a-vis the EU. But equally importantly, it will help to ensure the necessary coherence and complimentarity between NATO and the EU and thus the continuing viability of the transatlantic link.

At Nice, the EU has taken another important step, following Helsinki and Feira, to flesh out its relationship with "third countries", to employ the EU's own vocabulary. In the coming months we look forward to discussing individual aspects of the proposed relationship in the four joint working groups established by the two organizations to define their relationship. Much has been achieved, but much work remains. There is also need to bear in mind that no theory, however perfect, can substitute for satisfactory practice or implementation.

As we cross the threshold into the new millennium, let us hope that both organizations will be able to manage their relationship in a way that reinforces the bond that has so long united their members in the pursuit of common ideals.



Inspired by Iceland