During the practice “Above the Sky,” held in cooperation with the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue and the police on the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, a rescue man runs from a TF-LÍF helicopter from the Icelandic Coast Guard.
The Icelandic Coast Guard (ICG) is a 24/7 civilian law enforcement agency that is a unique instrument of Iceland’s national security. Since Iceland is the only NATO member without a standing military, it is a good thing the ICG’s new motto is “Always Prepared.”
While it can trace its history to the 15th century, the ICG was formally established on 1 July 1926, when the Icelandic government acquired the vessel Thor from the Westman Islands’ Rescue Association. Today, the ICG is under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs and since 2005 has been headed by Coast Guard Director General Georg Kr. Lárusson.
Currently, the ICG has an end strength of 250 personnel from 15 different Icelandic labor unions. Just like the U.S. Coast Guard, “everyday, personnel of the ICG deal with varied tasks, and no two days are the same.”1
According to its official website, ICG missions and tasks include:
• Search and rescue
• Maritime safety and security surveillance
• Law enforcement in the seas surrounding Iceland
• National defense
• Fisheries control and enforcement
• Pollution surveillance and response
• Natural resource and ecology protection
• Salvage and rescue diving
• Hydrographic surveying and nautical charting
• Bomb disposal
To perform these missions, the service has a small surface fleet of four patrol vessels—the Thor, Tyr, Baldur, and Ægir—augmented by two Aerospatiale Super Puma AS-332L1 helicopters and one TF-SIF Bombardier DASH 8-Q314 aircraft that is used for search and rescue, ice patrol, and medical evacuation.
Located at the National Rescue Center in Reykjavik, the ICG’s headquarters consists of administrative offices, the Hydrographic Department, Bomb Disposal Unit, and Logistics and Operations Center. The National Rescue Center is crucial to conducting operations along Iceland’s nearly 3,000 miles of coastline.
The ICG has been key to maintaining strong relations between Iceland and the United States after closure of Naval Air Station Keflavik in 2006, as evidenced by recent visits from senior U.S. officials. In October 2017, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer met with officials from the ICG during his first official overseas trip. U.S. Coast Guard Vice Commandant Admiral Charles Michel also visited that month, “to honor the Icelandic Coast Guard, the crew of the Icelandic Marine Research Institute vessel Árni Friðriksson, ISAVIA [the national airport and air navigation service provider] flight crew, and the Icelandic Joint Rescue Coordination Center for their heroism in saving the lives of three U.S. citizens lost at sea off Iceland in July 2017.”
The ICG also is crucial to Iceland’s contributions to NATO. According to the ICG, “It is responsible for operational defense tasks in Iceland including but not limited to operation of NATO-Keflavik Air Base, Security Zones, Iceland Air Defense Systems, its remote radar and communication sites, including Communication and Information Systems. Host nation support is provided for all Allied visiting forces operating in Iceland.” No other NATO coast guard is tasked with such operations, and it is no small feat given the ICG’s small size and inventory of high-demand, low-density platforms.
The relationship between the U.S. and Icelandic Coast Guards is a healthy one and is a model for coast guard-to-coast guard cooperation around the globe. These close ties are expected to be strengthened in the years ahead given the resurgence of a belligerent Russia.
1. The Icelandic Coast Guard “Always Prepared.”
2. “USCG Honors Icelanders for Heroism,” U.S. Embassy in Iceland, 12 October 2017.
Mr. Dolbow is editor of The Coast Guardsman’s Manual, 11th edition, published by the Naval Institute Press, and a senior acquisitions editor for professional development books at the U.S. Naval Institute.