For an island long considered to be one of the most peaceful nations on the planet, Iceland was a remarkably important element in NATO’s contingency plans and wartime strategy. Its geographic location is what made it so significant. Situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, almost directly between Greenland and Scotland, the island was a logical point to combat the expected surge of Soviet submarines transiting from the Norwegian Sea to the North Atlantic in a time of war. Submarines were not the only threat NATO convoys could expect in a time of war. Bombers loaded with anti-ship missiles would also range down into the North Atlantic from their bases on the Kola Peninsula. Therefore, Iceland was expected to be just as important in maintaining control of Atlantic skies during hostilities.
Keflavik Air Base was the centerpiece of military activity on Iceland. The combined US/NATO installation served as home to a squadron of USAF F-15C Eagles, and rotating detachments of E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, and US Navy P-3C Orions. In war, the primary role of the P-3s was to be hunting Soviet submarines around the GIUK gap, while the Eagle-AWACS team’s task was to interdict Soviet bombers coming south to hit the Atlantic SLOCs.
Along with the airbase, Iceland was also home to a small number of SOSUS stationed arrayed along the coast. These stations were critical nodes in the quest to detect and track Soviet subs moving south through the GIUK gap. NATO ASW aircraft especially would rely on vectors tracks provided by the information gathered at these stations. During peacetime the practice was a normal part of operations around Iceland. In wartime, the greatest difference would be the use of live torpedoes, as well as the possibility of some Soviet subs being equipped with hand-held SAMs on their periscope masts.
Bearing all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why Iceland, and Keflavik especially, was considered so valuable by NATO. Of course, the value and capabilities of NATO’s most isolated outpost were appreciated and recognized in Moscow as well. Where NATO war plans envisioned Iceland being used to bolster the effort to protect the convoys, Soviet plans called for the immediate neutralization of Iceland before it could play a pivotal role in a Third Battle of the Atlantic.
NATO was aware of this, yet the real mystery lay in exactly how the Soviets might neutralize Iceland. Imaginations ran wild when considering the possibilities. The effort could be limited to strikes by Long Range Aviation bombers in the Kola, and cruise missile attacks by SSGNs in the North Atlantic. Or, it could include airborne and amphibious landings to physically gain control of Keflavik and its environs. With this potential myriad of threats facing it, NATO was determined to ensure that Iceland was well protected in the event of war.
The best laid intentions of mice and men, however……
By 7 July, Keflavik was a busy place. Aircraft heading to and from Europe used it as a refueling spot. Additional P-3s and some KC-135s were arriving to augment the aircraft already there. Dependents had been evacuated and base defenses prepared. Air Force security personnel bore responsibility for this, though it was hoped that US Army or Marine troops would be available soon to bolster the sky cops. Plans called for the 187th Infantry Brigade, a US Army Reserve unit to be responsible for defending Iceland from a potential ground threat. That unit, however, was only receiving its warning orders from the Pentagon on the afternoon of the 7th. It would be at least two weeks before significant numbers of the brigade’s troops arrived.
In the meantime, the commander of Iceland Defense Force (A US military command) was frantically trying to rustle up additional reinforcements. More troops were desperately needed in the short term, as well as air defenses. The US Marines had offered a battery of I-HAWK missiles but until the Icelandic government gave its blessing, the batteries were sitting on the tarmac of MCAS Cherry Point, packed and waiting. Icelanders were already quite sensitive to the presence of so many foreign troops on their soil. Increasing the number even more was a matter that the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, was passionately debating at the moment.
The reluctance of Icelanders to accept what was happening in the world was especially frustrating to US personnel already on Iceland. As one unnamed USAF tech sergeant put it during an off-camera interview with a BBC reporter, “The natives are resistant to us bringing in more friendly troops to protect them. Fuck ‘em then. Let the ungrateful bastards live under Soviet occupation for a while and see what it’s like.”