The First in the War

The German Air Force practices rapid deployment to the strategically vital arctic region – substantiating Berlin’s claim to be on the front lines in a potential great power war.

REYKJAVÍK (Own report) – The Bundeswehr is currently training German pilots over Iceland to operate at the front lines in case of war. Until Thursday, German fighter jets will take off several times a day from that geostrategically important island between arctic resources and Atlantic communication lines. With its “Rapid Viking” exercise Berlin is demonstrating its so-called “first responder” abilities. Compared to NATO’s multinational exercises, the German maneuver is relatively modest. Instead of thousands or even tens of thousands of soldiers with hundreds of aircraft, only 30 soldiers are participating with six Eurofighters. This, however, is the logic of an exercise to train a swift deployment with few weapons and soldiers to achieve the greatest possible impact on the ground. “First Responders” are those, who are the first on the scene to intervene in the case of a conflict – to then be followed by hundreds of thousands of soldiers with heavy equipment. With exercises such as “Rapid Viking” Berlin is placing itself at the forefront of NATO’s war plans.

Rapid Viking 2023

Compared to NATO’s multinational exercises, which have been increasing since 2014, at times, involving several thousand soldiers, the “German Rapid Viking 2023” is a quite modest maneuver. Berlin has deployed six Eurofighters, 30 Bundeswehr soldiers and two A400M aircraft with a total of 25 tons of material to Iceland for the current two-week exercise. According to the Bundeswehr, it is aimed at “achieving the maximum operational footprint with the fewest possible human and material resources.”[1] Germany thus trains and demonstrates its so-called Frist Responder abilities. The “First Responders” are those, who are the first on the scene, to intervene in the case of a conflict, before the main forces arrive. To be in a position in a military context to be the first to react, short reaction and deployment time is essential. The participating soldiers were ready to take off for Iceland after two days of packing, according to their own account – however with a nine months preparation time. In case of a war or a crisis, most of the administrative and bureaucratic obstacles would be removed and “completely different regulations would apply,” explains the maneuver’s commanding officer: “Then I simply take off.”[2]

At the Front Lines

Until Thursday, German pilots will be conducting several training sorties each day in the Icelandic airspace as part of the Rapid Viking 2023 exercise. Civilian air traffic is “guided around” the zones reserved for the German military.[3] According to its own information, the Bundeswehr is using the maneuvers not only to send a “strategic message” but also to train air force pilots.[4] Prior to the successful training in Iceland, the participating Bundeswehr pilots had been “combat capable” only to a limited extent. They could “go to war” but would not be “right at the front.” In the Rapid Viking exercise German soldiers learn to “fly at the front lines.”[5]

Militarization of the Arctic

In its Arctic Guidelines, the German government commits itself to international cooperation and the preservation of a conflict-free Arctic in times of global great power competition.[6] However, this does not impede Berlin from military activity in that region. Already back in May of this year, the Bundeswehr had participated in the “Arctic Challenge” exercises. The German Air Force, at the time, was engaged in aerial-warfare training with its partners over northern Scandinavia – at times hardly more than 100 km from the Russian border.[7] With such maneuvers as Arctic Challenge, NATO is expanding its interoperability. The troops and weapons systems from individual member and partner nations are being forged into a unified effective alliance army. NATO countries participated in the Arctic Challenge 2023 exercises with a total of 150 aircraft. That is nearly double the participation of the Arctic Challenge 2021 exercises, prior to the Ukraine war.

Thin Ice

Exacerbation of great power rivalries and climate change have returned the Arctic into the focus of the military and strategists, who, in their planning, have long since been anticipating the melting of the polar ice cap. A race to exploit resources still under the ice has already begun. In addition, newly accessible shipping lanes could shift the international balance of forces in Russia’s favor. ( reported.[8]) Even without climate change, the GIUK gap is of particular strategic military significance in the conflict between NATO countries and Russia. GIUK Gap stands for the region between Greenland (G), Iceland (I), and Great Britain (UK). This represents a sort of bottleneck where Russia’s Northern Fleet must transit from its home port in the Russian Norwegian Sea to enter the Atlantic. If this maritime region were shut, access to the Atlantic for Russia’s Northern Fleet would be blocked – which would mean that NATO’s transatlantic lines of communication between the United States and Europe would be secured. Then possibly hundreds of thousands of US soldiers could be redeployed to theatres of war in Europe.[9] Iceland would play a key roll as well as serve as NATO’s gateway to the Arctic.

At the Front Lines

As a demonstration of “First Responder” abilities, Rapid Viking 2023 has significance for Berlin that surpasses the Arctic region. Germany is carrying out comparable maneuvers in other regions of the world, most recently in Estonia and in Australia.[10] If there were an open war between NATO and Russia or China, Germany, in a “First Responder” function, would be one of the first countries to actually engage in the combat. This would thus enter into direct combat with Russia, even before follow-on forces would have reached Europe.


[1] Rapid Viking 2023.

[2]  Der Kommandoführer im Interview. 01.08.2023.

[3] Interview mit dem Einsatzführungsoffizier. 03.08.2023.

[4], [5] Der Kommandoführer im Interview. 01.08.2023.

[6] Leitlinien deutscher Arktispolitik. August 2019.

[7], [8] See also Die Geopolitik des Klimawandels.

[9] See also Testmobilmachung gen Osten, Am Rande des Krieges (III) and Der Gipfel von Vilnius.

[10] German Air Force rushes to Iceland in ‘Rapid Viking’ drill. 28.07.2023.