Thule Air Base: A Strategic US Military Outpost in Greenland

The Pituffik Space Base, formerly known as Thule Air Force Base, is a military base in Greenland operated by the US military. 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 base – rebranded in 2023 as Pituffik Space Base – in Greenland is used by the US Space Force, and currently home to the 821st Space Base Group and is part of Space Base Delta 1.

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.

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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 Pituffik Space Base have focused on space defence. Up until 2020, the US Air Force Space Command’s 21st Space Wing, headquartered at the Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, US, used the base in Greenland to house its suite of space sensors.

The 21st Space Wing employed 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.

With the creation of the US Space Force in December 2019, the USAF’s 21st Space Wing went inactive as service-specific formations stood up for the newly-created service.

Supplying the military base in Greenland

Pituffik Space 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 Pituffik Space Base.

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.