- The U.S. Air Force recently dispatched three B-2 bombers to Iceland.
- These planes are part of a regular bomber rotation to Europe, but it’s the first time the service has based such bombers in Iceland.
- With this deployment, Iceland—which lacks a military—temporarily became one of the most powerful countries in the world.
Three U.S. Air Force B-2 bombers landed in Iceland in late August as part of a quarterly rotation of heavy bombers throughout the European theater. But unlike other rotations, which saw bombers based at advanced bases in the United Kingdom, the B-2s apparently spent several days on the remote Atlantic island. The mission is an odd turn for Iceland, which lacks armed forces of its own.
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On August 23, the three bombers touched down at Keflavik Air Base. While the Air Force typically sends small detachments of bombers to Europe (and Guam in the Pacific), the bombers typically roost at Royal Air Force (RAF) Fairford in the United Kingdom. Fairford has special facilities for American bombers, where the planes can get out of the rain and sun, and maintainers can attend to the stealthy, rubbery coating that covers the planes and reduces their radar signature.
The U.S. Air Force regularly sends flights of two to three bombers to Europe. The last mission, in May, saw four B-52 Stratofortress bombers temporarily operate out of Morón Air Base in Spain. On a strategic level, the missions are designed to send a message to Russia that the U.S. can quickly send bombers into its front yard. The bombers also regularly exercise with local air forces, both NATO and non-NATO, the latter including Swedish and Ukrainian air forces.
Iceland is unique among other NATO nations in that it has no standing military—merely coast guard, police, and search-and-rescue forces. The island country has long been a part of NATO, and other NATO countries have long contributed to its defense. Iceland forms part of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap, a pair of straits on both sides of the island that Russian surface warships and submarines must pass through to enter the North Atlantic. This strategic location makes Iceland a very valuable ally.
It’s not clear if there are facilities in Iceland to store the bombers indoors. In the past, Extra Large Deployable Aircraft Hangar Systems, portable hangars capable of sheltering a B-2, were set up in advance of a bomber deployment. For years, B-2 bombers required this sort of protection so that maintainers could go over the planes between flights, inspecting the radar-absorbing coating, and making repairs when necessary. Rough weather tended to exacerbate problems with the coatings, making more frequent repairs necessary.
The bombers in the video at the top of this page, however, are not immediately wheeled into a shelter, and appear to be settling in outdoors. The weather in Iceland during August is typically rainy and windy, with temperatures day and night hovering between 55 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This suggests that the B-2’s stealth coatings have been improved, or that the Air Force values the experience and symbolism of sending the bombers to Iceland over regular maintenance, and that the deferred work will be cleaned up later. The B-21 Raider, the B-2’s replacement, will need even less of such maintenance, making these deployments more common in the future.
Why Iceland? The Air Force is working to implement a new deployment strategy, known as Agile Combat Employment (ACE). ACE is a shift away from sending planes on exercises to large, well-known air bases in favor of concentrating air power in a handful of facilities. ACE sends fighters and bombers to smaller air bases in unexpected locations—like Iceland.
Traditionally, bomber task force flights fly every day, sending bombers to fly alongside Allied fighter jets and practice working with Allied forward air controllers dropping bombs in ground exercises. The Iceland-based bombers have already started fanning out across the continent, with a pair of B-2s overflying their usual home base, RAF Fairford. The deployments usually last several weeks, and then the three big bombers will wing their way back to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.
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