Thule Air Base: inside the US’s northernmost military base in Greenland

Talal Husseini 5 June 2019 (Last Updated January 23rd, 2020 09:52)

The US’s northernmost military base is the Thule Air Base in Greenland, which was strategically, yet illicitly, established to offer the Danish colonies protection from Germany in the Second World War. Today, the base is used for monitoring space for defence purposes.

Thule Air Base: inside the US’s northernmost military base in Greenland
The Thule Air Base is a military base in Greenland belonging to the US. How was it established and what are some of its contemporary uses? Credit: US Air Force.

The Thule Air Base is a military base in Greenland belonging to the US. It is, in fact, the US’s northernmost military base in the world, located just 1,524km from the North Pole and 1,207km north of the Arctic Circle.

The US established the Thule Air Base in 1941 to help Denmark defend its colonies from increasing German aggression. Today, the military base in Greenland is used by the US Air Force (USAF) Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Specifically, it is home to the 21st Space Wing’s network of sensors that provides early missile warning, space surveillance and control.

Establishment of the Thule Air Base

On 9 April 1940, the Danish Ambassador to the US Henrik Kauffmann commenced an agreement with the US that permitted the US military to help Denmark defend its colonies from advancing German forces, who had begun occupying the Danish mainland under a protectorate government.

Exactly one year to the day later, the Danish Ambassador signed ‘The Agreement relating to the Defense of Greenland’, which the protectorate government quickly denounced. However, the decision allowed the US to operate across Greenland as long as there was at threat to North America.

The agreement quickly culminated in the US Coast Guard and War Department setting up weather and radio stations at Narsarsuaq Airport, Sondrestrom Air Base, as well as sites at Ikateq and Gronnedal. This was followed by the US Army Air Forces establishing weather stations at Scoresbysund and finally Thule, which was operated by Danish personnel.

The decision by Kauffmann to go behind the back of the Danish Government earned him a charge of high treason and he was stripped from his rank. But Kauffmann ignored this and one of the first things the new parliament did after the Liberation of Denmark in May 1945 was to revoke these charges.

According to Time, the US planned to place “up to 600 nuclear-armed medium-range ballistic missiles” in underground tunnels – spanning more than 4,000km – during the Cold War. However, the so-called ‘Project Iceman’, which was located close to Thule at Camp Century, failed due to the fact that the ice sheets covering the tunnels were constantly shifting. By 1965, Camp Century’s personnel were removed and the project was scrapped.

Modern activities: a US space base

In more recent times, activities at the Thule Air Base have focused on space defence. The US Air Force Space Command’s 21st Space Wing, headquartered at the Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, US, uses the military base in Greenland to house its suite of space sensors.

The 21st Space Wing employs a global network of US and foreign radars that provide information on various space defence activities, such as detecting enemy ballistic missiles or the launching of new space-based systems.

For example, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, first established in 1961, allows the US to monitor more than 20 nations that have long-range nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons capabilities, such as an intercontinental ballistic missile or a hypersonic weapon.

“The Thule Air Base is strategically positioned for locating space threats over the Arctic region.”

For this purpose, the Thule Air Base is strategically positioned for locating space threats over the Arctic region.

Thule Air Base’s 821st Support Squadron Civil Engineer flight commander captain Stephen Caple said: “Everyone here at Thule Air Base plays an important role in securing Air Force Space Command, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Combatant Command, United States Northern Command, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization defence.

“In addition, we have numerous other scientific defence partners such as the National Science Foundation, the High Arctic Institute, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seeking to protect nature, wildlife, and the atmosphere 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle.”

Supplying the military base in Greenland

The Thule Air Base also claims the accolade of operating the northernmost port in the world to be regularly resupplied by a supply vessel carrying machinery, food and construction materials. Under Pacer Goose Sustainment, the USAF, Navy and Military Sealift Command conduct an annual mission to provide vital supplies to the crew at Thule.

The 2018 Pacer Goose Sustainment operation lead and USAF 2nd lieutenant Jonathan Symons said: “Pacer Goose Sustainment provides critical supplies to Thule Air Base, Greenland once a year. The DLA Distribution Norfolk team has a unique skillset that we don’t have in the USAF.

“We send the ship this time of year to Thule because the ice at the port there is at its weakest and we can get an icebreaker to assist in clearing the path for the cargo ship.”

“Without the constant outstanding support we receive from the DLA Distribution-Norfolk team, the 21st Space Wing would not be able to sustain our critical mission in such an austere, remote location.”

The mission can only be carried out within a timeframe, typically of around six weeks, when the ice sheets are thin enough for the supply vessel to break through. The US conducts this operation between the last week of June and the second week of August.

“We send the ship this time of year to Thule because the ice at the port there is at its weakest and we can get an icebreaker to assist in clearing the path for the cargo ship,” said Marine Cargo specialist Isai J Vazquez.

“Once we finish loading the ship in Norfolk, the ship keeps a tight schedule to meet the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. Once they rendezvous, the icebreaker leads them into Baffin Bay and into the port for discharge and retro on-load.”