For an island with the history, and reputation of a peaceful kingdom, Iceland proved to be a remarkably vital component in NATO war planning. Iceland’s location was the primary factor which made it so significant. Situated in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Scotland, the island was a logical choke point to counter the Soviet submarines expected to transit the GIUK gap in a time of war. Submarines were not the only threat NATO convoys could expect. Tu-22M Backfire and Tu-16 Badger long range bombers armed with anti-ship missiles would also range down into the North Atlantic from bases on the Kola Peninsula. Iceland was expected crucial in maintaining control of both the North Atlantic, as well as the skies above it in hostilities.
Keflavik Air Base was the focal point 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, KC-135 Stratotankers, and US Navy P-3C Orions. In a war, the primary role of the P-3s would be hunting Soviet submarines around the GIUK gap. The Eagle-AWACS team’s task was to interdict Soviet bombers coming south to hit Europe-bound convoys. The tankers were there to support both missions.
Along with the airbase, Iceland was home to a number of SOSUS stations arrayed along the coast. These stations were critical nodes in the effort to detect, and track Soviet subs moving south through the GIUK gap. NATO ASW aircraft would rely on vectors provided in large part by the information gathered at these stations. During peacetime the practice was a regular aspect of ASW operations around Iceland. The Soviets were aware of the importance of the SOSUS stations. In wartime, enemy subs were expected to land small detachments of commandos to neutralize the sites.
Bearing all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why Iceland, and Keflavik especially, was so valuable to NATO. Of course, the value and capabilities of NATO’s most isolated outpost were recognized in Moscow as well. Where NATO war plans envisioned Iceland as the center of the effort to protect the convoys, Soviet plans called for a rapid neutralization of Iceland before it could play a pivotal role in a Third Battle of the Atlantic.
NATO naval staffs had aware of the enemy’s intentions for years. Yet the real mystery lay in exactly how the Soviets might neutralize Iceland. Imaginations ran wild when NATO planning staffs pondered the scenario. 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 may expand to 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 sufficiently protected in a time of war.
The best laid plans of mice and men, however……
By 7 July, Keflavik was a busy place. Aircraft bound for, or returning from Europe used it as a refueling point. Additional P-3s and KC-135s were arriving to augment the aircraft already present. 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 just 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 started arriving.
In the meantime, the commander of Iceland Defense Force (A US military command) was working 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 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 and equipment to protect them. Fuck ‘em then. Let the ungrateful bastards live under Soviet occupation for a while and see how they like it.”