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Iceland's Role in NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System

"The Icelandic Coast Guard is as close as you can get to a military force in Iceland,” says Jon Gudnason, Director of Defence and Security of the Icelandic Coast Guard, as he explains the special and unique situation of Air Surveillance over NATO’s Ally in the High North. "We are responsible for all operational defence activities related to NATO including the Iceland Air Surveillance system, NATO Air Policing, Host Nation Support and operation of Keflavik Air Base.”

Iceland has no military forces, therefore the country’s Coast Guard, besides its original tasks of providing general Coast Guard duties, Search and Rescue services at land and in sea, operates the NATO Iceland Air Defence System (IADS) including Air Surveillance system of four radars and the NATO Control and Reporting Centre, CRC Keflavik. These ground units feed the Recognized Air Picture (RAP) into the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System, or NATINAMDS overseen by the Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) at Ramstein, Germany.

The four huge three-dimensional radar systems have a coverage of 250 nautical miles and overlap one another covering an area equivalent to the size of Germany. The system works 24/7/365 and outputs the data it collects as tracks of aircraft. These tracks are processed by about 12 CRC surveillance operators and transferred into NATO’s Combined Air Operation Centre at Uedem, Germany, which is responsible for the airspace over NATO members’ north of the Alps.

When no fighter aircraft are deployed to Iceland, the CRC Keflavik provides Air Surveillance functions to NATO.  When periodically NATO Allies deploy their fighter aircraft to Iceland to provide a peacetime interception capability, they also detach fighter controllers to the CRC. In all other NATO CRCs there are fighter controllers present 24/7 that can take action to respond to an unidentified track or aircraft inside the airspace; the CAOC may launch NATO quick response alert jets in response which are then controlled by CRC. When fighter aircraft are not in Iceland the CRC identifies unknown aircraft and the CAOC may scrambles fighter aircraft in response before they come close to Iceland or launches jets from faraway Allies e.g. Norway or the United Kingdom as deemed necessary.

This is the case 8 to 9 months of the year; however, Iceland has decided, back in 2008, on a different approach named Air Surveillance and Interception Capability to meet Iceland’s Peacetime Preparedness Needs. The periodic deployment of Allied fighter detachments is designed to help keep Icelandic airspace safe and secure. Consequently Allies deploy a minimum of four jets typically for three to four weeks, three to four times a year to conduct air defence flying training missions and, once certified, to intercept any unidentified aircraft. They also provide the necessary degree of training of NATO and Icelandic surveillance personnel to make sure that the Alliance could conduct a full-scale peacetime air policing mission at the shortest possible notice if required by real world events. For all this the Icelandic Coast Guard provides Host Nation Support and the critical Search and Rescue service to the Allied fighters.

"Whenever the Allies deploy their fighters here at Keflavik, they apply the local procedures,” says Gudmundur Hallgrimsson, a specialist at CRC. "Their fighter controllers come to the CRC and work alongside us. We provide them with all local procedures they need to know when they control their jets during a scramble or training flights. At this dual-use airport it is important to properly de-conflict their missions with civilian air traffic.”

The first such deployment in 2016 has been the US Air Force, Air National Guard. Four F-15C fighter jets together with a KC-135 tanker aircraft and approximately 160 airmen arrived at Keflavik Air Base in early April. After conducting familiarization flights and being certified by CAOC Uedem they have conducted the training that helps keep up NATO’s defensive peacetime posture in the High North making the airspace above Iceland safe for all air traffic.

"Since 2008 there have been nine Allies that have deployed their fighters and fighter controllers to Iceland,” says Jon Gudnason in conclusion. "It is important for our CRC staff to get the experience of working with these different nations just as it is most beneficial for them to become familiar with how to operate in our airspace. We integrate as one team and what we are doing here together is improving and maintaining the safety of all passengers on board civilian airlines transiting our airspace.”

More to follow on the US deployment.

Story by HQ AIRCOM Public Affairs, photos: Cynthia Vernat

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