Canadian fighter jets guarding Iceland’s skies as part of unusual agreement

Did you know that we stand on guard for Iceland?

It's true. A contingent of RCAF CF-18 Hornet fighters has been operating out of Keflavik Air Bace, outside the capital Reykjavik, since mid-March and will stay there until the end of April, according to a National Defence news release.

As a leading member of NATO and a close partner with Iceland, Canada is committed to doing its part to help protect the integrity of NATO’s airspace,

said Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

“Canada’s fleet of fighter aircraft and our personnel are ideally suited for this operation, which also contributes to the security of Canada by helping to monitor and control the northeast air approaches to North America.”

The sub-Arctic island nation, though founded by Vikings, has no standing military of its own — like Lichtenstein or Vanuatu. But it's been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty since the anti-Soviet defence bloc was founded in 1949.

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The reason was simple: Iceland's location was strategically significant for monitoring Soviet military activities during the Cold War. While it had no soldiers, Iceland contributed real estate for NATO radar sites and the air-defence control system, according to the country's Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

The U.S. military, which had occupied Iceland since 1942, looked after its defence until 2006, according to a National Post report. The Icelandic Defense Force was disbanded to free up money and resources for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since 2008, responsibility for air surveillance has rotated among several NATO member countries, who each use the U.S.-built Keflavik base for several weeks a year. It's Canada's turn.

A half-dozen Hornets from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron based at CFB Bagotville, in northern Quebec, and about 160 support personnel will provide a round-the-clock air umbrella over the sparsely populated [about 322,000] volcanic island nation.

According to the Department of National Defence, Operation Ignition is a "peacetime preparedness" mission aimed at exercising airborne surveillance and interception capabilities. Though the Soviet Union is long gone, the Russians still like to send reconnaissance missions into North American air space.

It's not clear who pays the bill for Canadian and other countries' forces while they patrol Iceland's airspace.

Icelanders have never really had much control over their larger fate in the world. For much of its history, Iceland was controlled by Norway and later Denmark.

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Largely independent since 1918, Iceland found itself a strategic focal point in the Second World War. The British violated its neutrality with a 1940 invasion to forestall German occupation, which would have put the Nazis astride a crucial North Atlantic sea route between North America and Europe. The Americans replaced the British in 1942 after entering the war.

Icelanders, who saw their overextended banks collapse during the 2008 global financial meltdown, have had an uneasy relationship with NATO.

The decision to join the defence pact was greeted with rioting in 1949. The Post noted then-prime minister David Oddisson said in a 2000 speech that the decision remained divisive in Icelandic politics, with Keflavik the scene of frequent anti-NATO demonstrations.

The government last year announced that Sweden and Finland were ready to take part in air surveillance over Iceland, starting in 2014. There was no indication that Iceland was preparing to pull out of NATO.