Corridors of Power: Iceland Air Defense, Bush in Europe, and More

Corridors of Power: Iceland Air Defense, Bush in Europe, and More

FRANCE PLUGS THE GAP -- Why are four French Mirage 2000 fighter planes currently deployed at the former U.S. air base at Keflavik, Iceland? Answer: The French are plugging a gap in NATO's North Atlantic defenses left by the U.S. withdrawal from Iceland in 2006. The Keflavik base controlled the so-called Iceland Air Policing Area designed to turn back Soviet long-range strategic bombers headed for U.S. airspace. Two years ago, the Pentagon closed the huge facility after almost 50 years because, in Washington's view, it had become a relic of the Cold War.

Moscow was quick to spot the hole, and very soon it was just like old times, with Russian long range patrols regularly trespassing into Iceland air space -- only now there were no American planes to shoo them away. In July 2007, NATO member Iceland, which has no armed forces, appealed to the Atlantic Alliance for protection. With a full-scale U.S. return too embarrassing to even contemplate, five NATO countries were nudged by Washington into taking turns deploying planes to discourage the Russians. France agreed to go first, to be followed in succession by Spain, Denmark, Poland -- and, yes, the United States.

According to two NATO insiders, the joint operation is to be given as little publicity as possible. In some participating countries -- Spain, for example -- it has yet to be announced. The reason, it's said, is not Washington's embarrassment at what amounted to a strategic miscalculation, but the likelihood that putting European forces in harm's way would be unpopular. The Russians reacted with characteristic chutzpah. Russian air force chief Alexander Zelin has protested to NATO that the intercepting French aircraft are flying too close for comfort, and violating "flight safety in every way."

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