Five Czech Gripen fighter jets are flying to Iceland on Friday as the Czech Army prepares to take over surveillance of Icelandic airspace. Over the next nine weeks Czech aircraft and a contingent of 75 soldiers will be primarily responsible for Iceland’s air defence, the only NATO member state with no air force of its own.
Iceland, one of the founding members of NATO, is the only member state without an army. Its role in NATO revolves around its strategic position and the NATO airbases on its territory. Consequently its defence is in the hands of NATO allies. From 1951 to 2006 the country’s air defence was exclusively in the hands of the United States after which other NATO members accepted the responsibility in a rotating joint operation. For the first time ever the Czech air force will now have the task of patrolling Iceland’s airspace. The planned five week surveillance mission was recently extended to nine weeks at NATOs request. Czech Defence Minister Martin Stropnický told Czech Television why the Czech military is sending its troops to Iceland.
“That is the way the NATO alliance works. There is a division of tasks according to capacity and we are able to provide air surveillance. Our Gripen fighter jets are ideal for this purpose. Also, this mission is a great training exercise for our air force. We have twice protected the air space of the Baltic States, and the surveillance mission over Iceland will allow the force to test its capability in harsh northern conditions. It is one of the few opportunities Czech pilots have to undertake flights over the sea.”
The fighter jets, which were given a protective layering to withstand the harsh climate, will for the first time be refuelling in the air over the Atlantic with the help of an Italian Boeing 767. Thursday’s scheduled flight to Iceland had to be postponed by 24 hours because bad weather conditions over the Atlantic would have complicated the procedure. Even so, there are stand-by alternatives – an emergency landing in Scotland or Norway would enable them to reach their destination – Iceland’s Keflavik Air base without great delay. The flight from Čáslav Airbase to Keflavik should take an estimated four and a half hours.
The bulk of the Czech contingent left on Monday and is on standby to take over Iceland’s air defence as soon as the Gripens arrive. They will be cooperating with NATO’s combined Air Operations Centre in Germany and are bracing for possible problems in view of the intensified activities of the Russian air force in the region. Four Gripens will be up in the air with one held in reserve.
The nine-week mission is expected to cost an estimated 33 million crowns and according to a stable agreement on the air-policing of its territory Iceland will cover the bulk of the expense.