Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.
United States airmen ventured north to the island of Jan Mayen in the Norwegian Sea in November to survey the isolated island's airfield.
Members of the 435th Contingency Response Squadron assessed runway surfaces, glideslope obstructions, and firing capes, according to an Air Force release.
Jan Mayen is north Iceland and sits astride sea lanes between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. (Google Maps)
Jan Mayen is north of Iceland and between Greenland and Norway, the latter of which administers and supplies it with regular flights by C-130 aircraft.
It has been used for centuries for whaling, hunting, and, more recently, meteorological monitoring. During the Cold War, it was used as a base for communications and navigation systems. Though it doesn't have a usable port, its airfield can be used for research and search and rescue.
The island is also above the Arctic Circle and, the release notes, “along sea-routes connecting Russia to the Atlantic Ocean.”
The runway on Jan Mayen Island, seen around 1968.(U.S. Navy)
The assessment and survey took place between November 17 and November 24, but the 435th CRS “spent several months working with the host nation to find the optimal time” to do it, US Air Forces Europe said in an email.
The visit by the 435th CRS survey team was its first airfield assessment there, and prior to their survey, U.S. aircraft could not land there.
“The 435th CRS was there to conduct a landing-zone survey and assessment so C-130J Super Hercules aircraft can land … to provide transport and resupply to the station located there,” Air Force Staff Sgt. Kyle Yeager, a member of the 435th CRS, said in the release.
The 435 CRS is the “unit of choice” for these airfield surveys because of its “cross-functional makeup,” comprising more than 25 different Air Force specialties that train together for unique challenges, Air Force Europe said.
The 435th CRS members were joined by members of the 435th Security Forces Squadron, which was there to do “a security assessment of the airfield to ensure that it met Air Force security requirements for C-130 operations,” said Tech Sgt. Ross Caldwell, a member of the 435th SFS.
“We must be trained and certified on many different tasks to counter any threat and survive in any environment we are tasked to operate in,” Caldwell said.
“If the [Contingency Response Group] goes, we go,” Caldwell added, referring to the US Air Forces Europe unit that assesses and opens airbases and performs initial airfield operations.
Options in the high north
Gunner's Mate 1st Class Christopher Carlson watches Royal Norwegian navy frigate HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl pull alongside the USS Harry S. Truman, October 26, 2018.(U.S. Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist Seaman Joseph A.D. Phillips)
The Norwegian Sea in particular has also gotten more attention, as Russia's growing submarine fleet, which is far from the size of its Cold War predecessor but much more sophisticated, would need to traverse it to get to the Atlantic.
The USS Harry S. Truman became the first U.S. carrier to sail above the Arctic Circle since the 1990s when it arrived in the sea in late 2018 for Trident Juncture, NATO's largest exercise since the Cold War.
Navy ships carrying Marines to the exercise first stopped in Iceland, where the Navy has spent millions refurbishing hangars at Naval Air Station Keflavik to accommodate more U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidons, considered to be the best sub-hunting aircraft out there. P-8s will visit Keflavik more often, but the Navy has said it's not reestablishing a permanent presence, which ended in 2006.
In November 2019, the Navy promoted visits by surface ships and submarines to Norway for exercises, tweeting photos of nuclear-powered attack sub USS Minnesota loading MK-48 torpedoes at Haakonsvern naval base.
US Air Force B-2 stealth bombers also recently made their first visit to Iceland, landing at Keflavik in late August to exercise it “as a forward location for the B-2, ensuring that it is … ready with credible force,” U.S. Air Forces Europe said at the time.
That deployment also saw B-2s fly into the Arctic, performing “an extended duration sortie over the Arctic Circle” in early September. US Air Forces Europe called it the B-2's “first mission this far north” in Europe.
While Jan Mayen airfield may be able to handle cargo and mobility aircraft like the C-130J, strategic bombers like the B-2 or the B-52, which also flew into the Arctic in late 2019, may not be able to operate there.
But it's always better to have more places to land.
“You've got Fairford, you've got Keflavik, you've got other places … it's not just one spot that if you crater the runway that's it,” Jim Townsend, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Defense Department official, told Business Insider after the B-2s visited Iceland last year.
Jan Mayen's airfield “would add another option in that region, and the surveys are often a critical piece of the Global Air Mobility Support System, ensuring unfamiliar airfields are safe to land for a variety of Air Force mobility aircraft,” U.S. Air Forces Europe said in its email.
During World War II and the Cold War, Iceland sat in the middle of the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap, through which Russian subs would have to pass to reach the North Atlantic. Russian submarines' newfound ability to strike cities and infrastructure in Europe with sub-launched missiles has led to arguments that NATO needs to operate farther north, closer to the Barents Sea, in order to keep an eye them.
Jan Mayen is closer to the Barents, but if there's a role it could play in operations up there, the U.S. military isn't saying.
“It would be inappropriate for us to speculate about possible future operations by U.S. or partner nation forces,” US Air Forces Europe said when asked about the island's future.
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