Task Force ICELAND
BLAIR WATSON
© 2011 FrontLine Defence (Vol 8, No 5)

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Canada’s participation in the NATO-Iceland Air Policing Program

In April of this year, five CF-188 Hornet fighter jets and 144 members of Canadian Forces’ Task Force Iceland participated in NATO’s policing of the skies over Iceland. The island has a population of just 319,500 – less than one percent of Canada’s – and no jet interceptor aircraft. Though small, its airspace and waters are strategically important, as events during the Battle of the Atlantic and European conflict during the Second World War proved.

In terms of civil aviation, thousands of ­jetliners fly between North America and Western Europe annually, traversing Iceland’s airspace. The strategic importance of this rocky Arctic nation to NATO is the reason member countries have deployed fighter aircraft, pilots and support personnel there each year since 2008. Canada’s April deployment – Roto 0 – marked the first time Canada's military contributed to policing Iceland's airspace.

During the Cold War, Soviet bombers and spy aircraft regularly probed the edges of Iceland’s airspace to test NATO’s reaction time – a “game” more recently played by Russian aircraft and crews. It’s been a morale-boosting exercise for the Russian Air Force even as Moscow becomes increasingly involved in military, economic and scientific projects involving European nations and Canada and the United States. Previously, the U.S. Air Force deployed fighter aircraft as part of its QRA(I) (Quick Reaction Alert for Intercepts) at the Keflavik Air Base in Iceland, however, that military undertaking ceased in September 2006.

NATO Assistance Requested
No sooner had the QRA(I) left, than Russia increased flights of its long-range Tu-95 “Bear” bombers through Iceland’s Air Defense System (ADS) surveillance area. Starting in late 2006, the Russian bombers came within 35 nautical miles of Iceland’s coast and twice circumnavigated the island nation. “First of all, we need to be concerned about our security and our defense just like everybody else,” Prime Minister Geir Haarde said at the Riga Summit nearly five years ago. He requested that NATO allies assume responsibility for protecting Iceland’s airspace. Similar arrangements were in place with other small NATO members lacking military resources. In July 2007, the North Atlantic Council agreed.
 
 
Task Force Iceland Commander, LCol Eric Kenny (far right), explains the steps involved in data recording and tracking of the CF-188 Hornet fighter aircraft to Ossur Skarpheoinsson, ­Iceland’s Minister of ­Foreign Affairs, during a tour at Keflavik Air Base, Iceland on 20 April 2011.
 
Curiously, “Iceland requested that air policing… not be continuous; such missions will be carried out an average 4 times per year, for 2 to 3 weeks at a time,” according to NATO. France was the first member to deploy fighter aircraft to conduct air patrols over Iceland.

The Royal Air Force had planned on deploying Typhoons to Iceland from 3 Squadron in Coningsby for several weeks in 2009. However, after the collapse of ­Iceland’s three major commercial banks due to the U.S. subprime credit ‘earthquake’ that began in the summer of 2007 and wiped out $14 trillion in global wealth including several billion pounds of British financial assets held by Icelandic banks, London cancelled the deployment. The U.K.-Iceland relationship is still chilly, so it’s unlikely that the RAF will be participating in the NATO air policing mission in the near future.

 
LCol Eric Kenny, Task Force Iceland Commander, talks with Thornorunn J. Hafstein, Director, Icelandic Ministry of the Interior, during a tour of a Canadian area at Keflavik Air Base.

As for Canada, DND’s office of the Assistant Deputy Minister (Finance and Corporate Services) explained in an email that “all costs related to deployed personnel, equipment, and aircraft (flying hours), are absorbed by the CF. Iceland is responsible to provide accommodation, maintenance facilities, local transport, office space, communications such as telephone and Internet services, search and rescue capabilities, fire services, and meteorological information.”

During the deployment, various military leaders and government representatives arrived at the Keflavik Air Base to meet with LCol Kenny and observe Canada’s contribution effort to the NATO air policing mission. These included Mr. Alan Bones (Canada’s Ambassador to Iceland); Mr. Ossur Skarpheoinsson (Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs); and Ms. Thornorunn J. Hafstein (Director, Icelandic Ministry of the Interior); General Walt Natynczyk (Chief of the Defence Staff); LGen André Deschamps (Chief of the Air Staff); MGen Alain Parent (Deputy Commander, Cdn Expeditionary Force Command); and BGen Richard Foster (Deputy Commander Force Generation, 1 Canadian Air Division).

On April 23, Kenny and other Task Force Iceland personnel visited the Commonwealth Cemetery in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city on the island, where the lieutenant-colonel laid a wreath in remembrance of Canadians who fought during the Second World War and were buried in Iceland. The Allies had a significant military presence in the country during the war to guard against a possible German invasion and provide naval and air forces in the North Atlantic to protect merchant shipping between North America and Britain.

Training Radar Operators
After the QRA(I) departed in 2006, Iceland began training its civilian radar operators in the Control Reporting Center (CRC) of the Keflavik Air Base, formerly the Keflavik Naval Air Station. The aerodrome is shared between deployed NATO air forces and civilian airlines (the Keflavik International Airport). The ADS was founded in 1987 and includes the CRC, four radar complexes, and a software and support facility. Iceland’s Coast Guard has been in charge of the ADS since 2009.

In late 2006, the Icelandic Defence Agency (IDA) recognized that its personnel needed assistance with the radar and related systems. In response to the IDA’s request for help, a 12-member Canadian technical support team travelled to the Arctic nation the following year. “We changed our role here for the radar operators with lots of retraining for them. Canada was one of the first to provide help,” said Icelandic Air Defence Air Command and Control Manager Jón Björgvin Guònason. He added that “Our role is focused on the operational side of directing and monitoring airspace and providing support to NATO squadrons that come here.”

Assignment Change
An inspection team conducted a site survey at the Keflavik Air Base to determine what would be needed for the deployment. Members from 3 Wing and 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) from Canadian Forces Base Bagotville were tasked to go. However, in mid-December, demonstrations in Tunisia quickly morphed into a ­revolution, followed by the same in Egypt a month later as huge numbers of Muslims took to the streets in protest. Several Islamic countries have been rocked by the so-called “Arab Spring” and old regimes have been overthrown or are in the process of being jettisoned.

In Libya, peaceful protests mutated into a major armed conflict within a month. On March 17, the United Nations Security Council announced a ban on flights – a no-fly zone – over Libya to end “the current attacks against civilians”, quoting a U.N. press release. Two days later, Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced that six Hornets and some 140 Air Force personnel would be deployed to support U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. HMCS Charlottetown had already left Halifax 17 days earlier, heading for Libyan waters. Operation Mobile was underway, and 3 Wing/425 TFS aircraft and personnel were suddenly going to the sunny Mediterranean, not cold and blustery Iceland.
 
 

Left: Lt Ali Ullah, an Aerospace Control Officer with the Task Force Iceland Control and Reporting Center at Keflavik Air Base, talks with ­Command and Control Center about aircraft displayed on his radar screen. Centre: Capt Iain Hannam, a CF-188 Hornet fighter aircraft pilot, dons his Life Preserver Survival Vest in preparation for a flight from Keflavik Air Base. Right: Aviation Technician MCpl Shayne Leveque explains Hornet safety to the Keflavik Airport Fire Fighters during a firefighter aircraft safety training session at the Keflavik Air Base.

409 TFS Gets the Job
Next in line for the Icelandic air policing mission was 409 TFS of 4 Wing. In charge was commanding officer, LCol Eric Kenny. “I assumed command about one week before our advance party left for Iceland,” he tells FrontLine. “All departments at Cold Lake were very busy ensuring that we would be capable of supporting ourselves once out there.”

Kenny explains that although six Hornets were in the original Op Ignition plan, because of the deployment to southern Italy and other requirements, the fighter aircraft fleet sent to Iceland was reduced to five. He also notes that the deployment involved personnel and airplanes, including CC-130 Hercules aerial tankers (for the Canada-Iceland flight, and back) from six Air Force Wings. Task Force Iceland was comprised of Hornet pilots, aircraft maintenance technicians, air weapons controllers, force protection guards, public affairs staff, and other CF personnel.

“Air weapons controllers were sent to Iceland the week before the Hornets arrived,” says Kenny. “The controllers needed to get hands-on experience with Icelandic surveillance, which is done by the country’s coast guard. They use not only Iceland’s radar system but also a Dash 8 turboprop modified for surveillance in Canada. It was great working with the ­Icelandic Coast Guard because they were very dedicated and really supported our mission.”

The NATO ADS used in Iceland is very similar to that employed in Canada, says Kenny, which allowed Air Force controllers to get up to speed quickly. Logistics and support personnel (5) were deployed three days before the main group arrived on a CC-150 Polaris aircraft in early April.

Ready to Scramble
According to Kenny, the fighter aircraft arrived at the Keflavik airport on 3 April, and they were “holding alert” five days later. “We flew 75 sorties during Op Ignition, with the weather holding us back only a few times.” He explains that CF-188 pilots flew their Hornets to four Icelandic airfields and practiced intercepts, air-to-air engagements and air-to-ground missions.
 
 
Capt Richard Cohen, Task Force Iceland pilot, loads the flight recording tapes in the Hornet fighter prior to a flight.

The CF-188’s were equipped with three external tanks (allowing an extra hour of flight). Although flying the longest distance across Iceland southwest to northeast takes just 20 minutes in a Hornet, another 20 minutes is needed to reach the edge of the 200-nautical-mile air defence zone. Carrying extra fuel was imperative due to the unpredictable weather (sunny one minute and hailing soon after), surface winds reaching 150km/h on occasion, only a few airfields suitable for landing, and no tanker aircraft on or near the island.
 
 
Members of Task Force Iceland Force Protection prepare to set up the Perimeter Surveillance Radar System on the air field at Keflavik Air Base, Iceland.

“A Huge Success”
Having completed their mission, the Hornet pilots departed Iceland on May 2 and the main body of personnel left two and three days later. “Operation Ignition was a huge success for us,” says Kenny. “We demonstrated to NATO that we can integrate quickly into their structure and provide the capabilities that are needed. We were asked to provide air defence for just three of the five weeks we were here, but we actually exceeded that, which was great. Regular NORAD air-intercept training provided our pilots with an excellent foundation for our operations in Iceland.”

Asked if Canada’s fighter aircraft and Air Force personnel will be going back to the Nordic country, Kenny responds that the next planned deployment is currently set for April 2013. What will happen between now and then on the global geopolitical stage is anybody’s guess.
 
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Blair Watson is a contributing editor for FrontLine Defence magazine.
All photos: Sgt Dwayne Janes, 4 Wing Imaging, Cold Lake, AB
© FrontLine Defence 2011

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