By Adm. James G. Foggo III
Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa
Commander, Allied Joint Force Command Naples
There is no NATO without the North Atlantic. Strong presence in this key region assures NATO’s collective security and Iceland is central. As I recently said in my second podcast, “On the Horizon,” the operational reality is that should conflict arise, whoever can exert control over this region can either protect or threaten all of NATO’s northern flank. Defense of the North Atlantic is thus synonymous with the sovereignty and security of the alliance.
The security of the North Atlantic has been a focal point that predates NATO’s establishment. I recently had the privilege of speaking at a commemoration ceremony honoring the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Battle of the Atlantic – the longest continuous battle of the Second World War. Over 2,775 merchant vessels were sunk over 68 months, totaling 14.5 million tons – that’s over 40 ships a month. It finally ended when Grand Admiral Donitz ordered his U-boats to cease all hostilities and return to base on May 4, 1945.
While visiting Iceland, I also witnessed the first field exercise of Trident Juncture 2018. Trident Juncture will take place primarily in Norway, but the activities got underway early in Iceland. The main phase will begin Oct. 25, bringing together around 50,000 personnel from all 29 allies, as well as partners Finland and Sweden, and 65 ships, 120 aircraft and 10,000 vehicles. U.S. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit kicked off Trident Juncture 2018 events in Iceland last week. The Marines from the amphibious assault ships USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) conducted a simulated air assault at the Keflavik Airport.
These events gave me the opportunity to reflect not only on the criticality of this region, but to also reflect on the importance of our allies and partners, particularly Iceland.
The Strategic Importance of the North Atlantic
When examining the Battle of Atlantic, it is clear that although adversaries and allies have changed, the strategic importance of this body of water endures. During WWII, Germany dropped leaflets over the United Kingdom proclaiming “Britain’s losing the Battle of the Atlantic means Britain’s losing the war.”
Although propaganda generally distorts the truth, the leaflets in this case were accurate, as the war effort depended heavily on supplies that were transported by sea: food for Britain, shipbuilding materiel for the U.S. and fuel and ammunition for tanks and fighters in the North Africa campaign. They wreaked havoc amongst the convoys that were a lifeline for the British population and the war industry. The seas were crucial to success or failure of the Allied effort.
The tables turned in May 1943, when the Allies began to attack and sink German U-boats with higher precision and greater regularity, severely debilitating the enemy’s control over the region. Success was only possible because of the high number of Allied ships, submarines and aircraft working together and out of necessity. These units developed new tactics and honed innovative new capabilities which ultimately strengthened the alliance. While many factors contributed to the Allies’ victory, control of the North Atlantic proved to be among the most critical factors.
The unsung hero in the Battle of the Atlantic was Iceland and the generosity of its citizens. Officially neutral, the Icelanders allowed American, British and Canadian servicemen and women to be stationed on their shores and to have ships, submarines and aircraft operate from Icelandic airfields and ports. Keflavik and Hvalfjordhur became important bases for anti-submarine forces.
Allied aircraft based in Iceland were critical to the campaign to protect the vital North Atlantic sea lanes of communication as they scoured the seas for U-Boats that stalked and engaged Allied assets with deadly efficiency. Ultimately, about half of all successful U-boat engagements were carried out by shore-based aircraft, many departing from Iceland.
Strategically located, Icelanders kept watch over the Atlantic. Tens of thousands of Allied servicemen were welcomed as honorary Islanders, treated with familial hospitality and after six years, the Allies prevailed.
NATO’s Three Ds
Iceland hosted the famous Reykjavik Summit, which would eventually lead to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty in 1987. Prior to the Battle of Atlantic commemoration, I had the opportunity to visit the Hofdi House. This is historic location where President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986 to discuss critical topics of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and human rights. As I sat in President Reagan’s chair from 1986, I thought about how it is important for countries to discuss differences and address possible situations that could make the region, and the world, a better and safer place for everyone. Dialogue also helps to reduce the possibility of a miscalculation between countries, possibly preventing military conflict.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the NATO alliance is about three Ds: deter, defend and dialogue. And the alliance allows our political and military leaders to participate in such dialogue with other countries from a position of strength. One example of these three Ds is the symbol of my headquarters, the Lion of Saint Mark’s from Venice; I’m very proud of that. The lion holds a sword, the sword is to defend. The lion’s paw is on the book of peace; deterrence. But you have to have dialogue, and we do.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford and the Commander of U.S. European Command Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti have had an ongoing dialogue with Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov. There’s been some tense moments and I think that dialogue is good to defuse and to avoid mistakes and miscalculations.
The U.S. Navy participates in annual Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) discussions with the Russian Federation Navy. We have a dialogue and it’s professional. And that’s the way it should be and we should continue that. So deter, defend and dialogue. We must not be any other way as it is critical to avoid mistakes and miscalculations that lead to military confrontation.
As we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic in Faxa Bay, Iceland, aboard the Icelandic Coast Guard Vessel Thor, we could see the Hofdi House. This was done purposely by the Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs. This provided a great historic perspective as we commemorated the longest battle of WWII, it sent the stage for Trident Juncture and the future for the NATO alliance.
From the Battles of the Atlantic to the Reykjavik Summit to today, Iceland is at the center of the geopolitically critical North Atlantic. Iceland is a trusted and long-time ally, and an outstanding founding member of NATO. To the Icelandic people, thank you for your hospitality to me and all the NATO soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. It was a magnificent visit and crucial to communicate we are stronger together. Takk!