With another historic trip to Iceland, US stealth bombers are building ‘muscle memory’ as the Arctic heats up

B-2 stealth bomber at Keflavik Iceland
A US Air Force crew chief prepares a B-2 for departure from Keflavik Air Base, September 8, 2021. US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Victoria Hommel
  • US B-2 stealth bombers spent two and half weeks operating out of Iceland in August and September.
  • It was the first time B-2 bombers have operated continuously from Iceland.
  • Iceland is in a valuable location, and the deployment reflects the US military’s increasing focus on the region.
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US Air Force B-2 stealth bombers left Iceland this month after operating from Keflavik Air Base for two and a half weeks in a first-of-its-kind deployment that reflects the US military’s increased focus on the high north.

Three B-2s from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri arrived at Keflavik on August 23 for a Bomber Task Force deployment. BTFs began in 2018 and are part of dynamic force employment, which for bombers has meant more short-term deployments overseas or non-stop flights to and from distant regions for training.

The B-2s trained with US and British fighter jets over the North Sea in late August and early September. On September 8 they trained with Norwegian F-35s over the North Sea in an “advanced mission designed to test escort procedures, stand-off weapon employment and the suppression and destruction of air defenses.”

The bombers returned to Missouri on September 11, after conducting more a dozen multinational missions over the preceding month, the Air Force said.

B-2 stealth bomber at Keflavik Iceland
A US Air Force crew chief prepares a B-2 for departure from Keflavik, September 11, 2021. US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Victoria Hommel

B-2s first flew to Iceland in September 2019, but that was just one of their stops as they operated out of the UK.

“This is the first time the B-2 has operated continuously from Iceland,” according to Lt. Col. Matthew Howard, commander of the 110th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, who called it a “historic deployment.”

The B-2s “did significant integration with our NATO partners” including “a lot of work with the Norwegians,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe and Africa, told reporters during the Air Force Association conference on Tuesday.

The US aircrews and their counterparts were able to continue refining “tactics, techniques, and procedures,” building interoperability and demonstrating the importance of what Harrigian described as “muscle memory being built just by the fact that they’re there and working through how we’re actually going to execute with” NATO allies.

The deployment to Keflavik also “provides a new forward operating location to operationalize bomber agile combat employment and maintain favorable regional balances of power” in support of the Pentagon’s Arctic Strategy, the Air Force said in a release.

‘Part of the competition’

B-2 stealth bomber at Keflavik Iceland
A B-2 undergoes a routine maintenance inspection after returning to Keflavik, August 26, 2021. US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Victoria Hommel

Naval Air Station Keflavik was US Navy base during the Cold War. Iceland’s location in the center of a chokepoint known as the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap allows aircraft there to monitor waters through which the ships and submarines of Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet would have to pass to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

The US closed its base there in 2006, but Keflavik has seen renewed activity in recent years as the US and NATO militaries seek to counter Russia’s increasingly capable and active military.

The 2018 defense budget included $US14.4 ($AU20) million to refurbish the base’s hangars. In late 2020 the Air Force awarded another $US38 ($AU53) million to improve airfield infrastructure there.

In addition to US Air Force aircraft, US Navy P-8 Poseidons, considered the best sub-hunting plane in use, have also resumed operating out of Keflavik.

B-2 stealth bomber at Keflavik Iceland
A B-2 prepares to depart Keflavik Air Base, September 11, 2021. US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Victoria Hommel

As the Arctic has gotten more accessible, it has been a venue for heightened tensions between Russia and NATO. Air and naval forces from both sides have increased their presence and activity there significantly.

The historic BTF deployment to Iceland comes just six months after B-1 bombers conducted the first bomber deployment to Norway.

Norwegian forces have worked more closely with the US and other NATO militaries amid those tensions, and the deployment was meant to give US airmen experience operating in the region, which has been an ongoing goal for Harrigian’s command.

On September 15, Harrigian hosted senior defense officials from seven of the eight Arctic nations – all but Russia – at the first Arctic Air Chiefs Symposium, where they discussed Arctic-focused campaigns and initiatives.

The Iceland deployment is “part of the competition” that senior Air Force officials often talk about, Harrigian said Tuesday. “It really relates to the deterrent value that those capabilities bring, particularly when we leverage that with our partners.”