Iceland Air Policing
In the winter of 2021, Norwegian F-35s deployed to Iceland to guard and protect Icelandic airspace.
Iceland does not have its own air force, and to meet the country's need for sovereignty and airspace surveillance, NATO provides a periodic air force presence in peacetime. The mission is called Iceland Air Policing (IAP) and rotates between NATO's member countries.
In March 2021, several Norwegian fighter jets were stationed in Iceland ready to scramble 24–7 if an unidentified aircraft came close to Icelandic airspace. This readiness is known as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), and is well-known to the Royal Norwegian Air Force: Norwegian fighter jets solve this task every day from Bodø, northern Norway.
The Norwegian mission, including deploying and redeploying of personnel and aircraft, lasted from mid-February to primo April 2021. Norway has contributed to IAP several times before, the lastest being in the winter of 2020.
The IAP mission was also an important opportunity for the Royal Norwegian Air Force to test its new F-35 system outside Norway. This not only included the aircraft, but also pilots, technicians, logistics personnel, and various other support functions.
Norwegian control and reporting personnel were also deployed to Iceland. In Iceland, they mentored their colleagues at the Icelandic Control and Reporting Centre (CRC). This cooperation enabled the Icelandic personnel to monitor and produce updated recognised air pictures (RAP) of Iceland's airspace.
More about the mission
Iceland is one of the founding countries of NATO, and the country signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. Through a 1951 agreement, the United States agreed to provide for the military defence of Iceland – through the Iceland Defense Force. In 2006, the United States terminated the Iceland Defense Force and withdrew its forces from the country.
The United States guaranteed it would still defend Iceland in the event of a crisis or war. However, continuous monitoring and air policing of Iceland’s airspace in peacetime was not part of the US guarantee. In 2007, NATO agreed to provide Iceland with protection of its airspace. The first deployment of aircraft took place in May 2008. The IAP is not a permanent mission, instead there are three deployments a year, each lasting 3–4 weeks. The mission rotates between NATO countries, and Norway has had five deployments so far – most recently in March 2020.
The Norwegian government decided that Norway was to handle the mission again in March 2021. This was in accordance with NATO's "Airborne Surveillance and Interception Capabilities to meet Iceland's Peacetime Preparedness Needs Mission" (ASIC IPPN).
The F-35 is a highly advanced and sophisticated weapons platform, and has already been a part of the Royal Norwegian Air Force for years. The first F-35s landed in Norway in 2017. The system reached its initial operating capability in 2019, and the Norwegian F-35 fleet will be fully operational in 2025.
The Royal Norwegian Air Force is on track with operational testing and evaluation, and education of F-35 personnel in Norway. As of winter 2021, Norway had received a total of 28 F-35 fighter jets. 21 of the aircraft were stationed at Ørland Air Base, while the remaining seven were based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, USA, where they are used for training and educating new F-35 personnel.
Several other NATO nations have also received their F-35. This is vital for the cooperation within the Alliance, and for developing Norwegian operational personnel and maintaining the F-35s. The new platform is also an important contribution to Norwegian defence capability and to NATO’s collective defence.
Also known as QRA, is a 24-hour mission that Norway performs on behalf of NATO.
QRA simply means that Norway continuously monitors Norwegian airspace and all traffic near our airspace. Should an unknown aircraft appear close to Norwegian airspace, two Norwegian F-16s will be in the air within 15 minutes.
When airborne, Norwegian CRC personnel (Control and Reporting Centre) guide the F-16s towards the unknown aircraft to identify and document them. This job is called air policing.
Norwegian fighter jets have conducted several air policing missions abroad, most recently in Lithuania in 2015, and in Iceland in 2016 and 2020. The past missions have been solved with F-16s – except from last year, when Norwegian F-35s operated abroad for the first time.
From 2022, Norway retires its F-16s, and the new F-35s will solve the QRA task from Evenes Air Base, northern Norway. Our experiences from Iceland Air Policing will therefore be valuable for the preparations ahead of the establishment at Evenes.