Iceland’s Comprehensive Approach to Security is Complemented by a National Focus on Harnessing Natural Resources and Innovation

05 May 2023

As the only NATO Ally without a standing military force, Iceland’s security is ensured through international cooperation. It is a founding member of the Alliance and makes important contributions to NATO policies and operations, including through financial support and it allows NATO to use its territory for training and exercises. In addition to being a strong supporter of the alliance, the country has unique capabilities and resources that are relevant to Allied security in a broader sense, such as expertise in energy security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, Arctic oceanography, digital communications and data storage. 

As President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson underlined in his meeting with the NATO PA delegation, “the security of this island depends on the security of others.” Mr. Jóhannesson also pointed out that although historically Iceland has been distant from major world conflicts, the country is increasingly affected by events outside the region and the growing interest of actors like Russia and China in the Arctic. It has therefore stepped up its own role in security issues as a result. 

Implications of Russia’s war against Ukraine for Iceland and security in the Arctic

Russia’s illegal and unprovoked war in Ukraine has not only fundamentally altered transatlantic security, but it has also brought Arctic security to the forefront of discussion among Allies. The changing transatlantic security environment and the increased global focus on the Arctic also heightened the focus in Iceland on security more generally, prompting the country to adopt a new National Security Strategy in 2023. This recent update focuses primarily on resilience and civilian activities and illustrates Iceland’s continued holistic approach to security issues. Changing security threats and concerns have affected both public perception among the Icelandic people and the government’s approach to international affairs. 

The fundamental pillars of Icelandic security have always been NATO membership and its bilateral agreement with the United States, however, Iceland has also demonstrated a uniquely broad and comprehensive approach to security. This includes not only a strong focus on NATO-wide and regional cooperation, but also an emphasis on the fundamental role of civilians in building domestic security, such as in the protection of critical infrastructure. The delegation was therefore interested to hear from experts on subsea cables, cyber networks, and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) during the visit. 

Throughout meetings in and around Reykjavik, the NATO PA delegation gained insights from a wide range of experts from the public and private sector on numerous issues, including topics on which Icelanders maintain a unique perspective, given the country’s relatively small size and its strategic position as a link between Europe and North America. For example, respect for international law and democratic values are particularly important for Icelandic security because, as a small, isolated country, a “might makes right” approach to international affairs would threaten the very existence of Iceland as a nation. Therefore, its commitment to upholding democratic values and contributing to international security, including the promotion of deeper transatlantic and Arctic cooperation, remains strong. 

The importance of protecting critical infrastructure

Iceland plays a crucial role in connecting Europe to North America via civil infrastructure and providing communication links via subsea cables. Safeguarding this infrastructure has long been a priority in Iceland, especially as the country is entirely dependent on undersea cables for uninterrupted data connectivity. But protecting this infrastructure requires both constant cooperation between public and private actors as well as international cooperation to protect and ensure connectivity. Active monitoring of these cable networks relies on multiple actors and, from the technology perspective, on the use of AUVs to perform invaluable surveillance on the seabed, as AUVs are the only cost-effective way to conduct continuous underwater scanning and inspection. 

Regarding cyber networks, Iceland has seen an unprecedented increase in attacks for several years in a row and has worked to lessen its response time, improve coordination mechanisms and build resilience among its population in response to this trend. In the cyber domain, as in other areas, Nordic cooperation has increased in recent years. Additionally, artificial intelligence (AI) continues to reshape this domain, including by changing the nature of cyber attacks on both civilians and critical infrastructure. Experts explained that the pace of change in AI as well as quantum computing will continue to pose significant challenges moving forward and ensuring that populations are informed and resilient must remain a top priority. 

Iceland – a “green power by default”

Although Iceland relies on others for consistent digital connectivity, it is essentially self-sufficient when it comes to energy. Experts referred to this as “green power by default” and it is one of the main reasons why Iceland has become a hub for data storage, since power is relatively cheap, especially compared to continental Europe. The visit to the Hellisheiði power plant gave the delegation an interesting insight into the process of producing green energy through geothermal power. The Minister of the Environment, Energy and Climate, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, provided a comprehensive energy history of Iceland and its rapid transition to renewable sources, which now make up 80% of Icelanders’ consumption. Iceland has also announced ambitious targets for greening the transportation sector, which is a main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. However, although many of the techniques used in Iceland could be adopted elsewhere, there is no one solution or approach to energy independence that fits every nation equally, host country interlocutors cautioned. 

Iceland’s prioritization of harnessing its unique resources was also a key topic of discussion during the STCTTS visit to Reykjavik. For example, parliamentarians were briefed on sustainable development techniques and carbon capture, utilization and disposal. Local experts consistently noted that a better understanding of nature enables more efficient and effective use of resources. In addition to applications for the energy sector, this theme was also highlighted during discussions on ocean acidification, which is currently one of the major challenges in the High North. Similar to events in the cyber domain, here too the rapid pace of change in the ocean’s ecosystem is cause for great concern. 

Arctic Cooperation 

The Arctic environment is also changing with regard to international and particularly regional cooperation. The Arctic Council, established in 1996, was for many years a model of cooperation between states. However, Arctic cooperation has deteriorated, primarily due to Russia’s disengagement, which began even before its illegal and unprovoked renewed invasion of Ukraine. Even though the other seven Council members continue to meet informally, Russia’s actions put Arctic cooperation in jeopardy, including regarding decisions on shipping and mining. During the visit, experts underlined ongoing debates on underwater mining in the Arctic, which has been a controversial issue for many years and is further exacerbated by the already visible effects of climate change in the Arctic region.

In addition to improving international cooperation mechanisms, a key aspect of developing future responses to climate change will depend on fostering innovation through education and empowering additional knowledge-based industrial expertise. The innovation environment in Iceland is rapidly growing, however, the Icelandic population rarely benefits directly from the technological advancements made by the increasing number of companies arriving on its shores. Meanwhile, Iceland’s education system lacks the resources to train people at the pace needed to stay competitive in technology-based skills areas. Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, underscored the importance of moving faster to train, attract and retain talent in Iceland. During discussions, participants also noted the issue of “brain drain” and the different ways this trend has affected their nations.  

Briefings at the Naval Air Station Keflavik, which is operated by the Icelandic Coast Guard, concluded the visit of the Sub-Committee. The delegates obtained an overview of Keflavik’s important role in air surveillance and Iceland’s notable radar system capabilities. Briefers on base also highlighted Iceland’s growing role in maritime surveillance and increasing coordination between Keflavik and the NATO Command Structure (NCS). 

The NATO PA delegation was graciously hosted by the Icelandic Parliament and met with the Speaker of Parliament, Birgir Ármannsson, during its 3-day visit to Iceland. The delegation was led by Kevan Jones (UK), Chairperson of the Sub-Committee on Technology Trends and Security and included 15 members from 13 countries.

Photos of the visit courtesy of © Alþingi