US, Greenland reach agreement on Thule Air Base contract, long a source of dispute

Future contracts to serve the base will go to Greenlandic companies.

By Martin Breum - October 29, 2020
A view shows the Thule Air Base, United States Air Force’s northernmost base, in the island of Greenland, October 8, 2019. (Ida Guldbaek Arentsen / Ritzau Scanpix / via Reuters)

A pattern of rapidly growing cooperation between the United States and Greenland was further boosted Wednesday as a new deal about the maintenance of Thule Air Base was clinched. The deal promises significant financial gains for Greenland as the U.S. works to increase its military presence there.

The new arrangement, which falls in the midst of a broader U.S. military and diplomatic campaign in the Arctic, was signed by the U.S. and Greenland after a video conference between U.S. National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, Greenland Premier Kim Kielsen and Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeppe Kofod.

In a press statement Kim Kielsen expressed his satisfaction that Greenland would now receive “real, tangible benefits from the American presence.”

”We are genuinely pleased with the agreed plan for our future bilateral cooperation with the U.S.A.,” Kielsen said.

As a key item of the new deal, the U.S. guarantees that future contracts for the maintenance of Thule Air Base’s extensive gravel roads, hangars, canteens and other components will be awarded exclusively to companies firmly based in Greenland. The U.S. promises to look for value and not only the lowest price when awarding the contract, and successful candidates must employ a growing number of Greenlandic workers and apprentices; an important factor in Greenland’s small labor market.

In 2014, Greenland lost substantial income, as the Pentagon awarded the Thule maintenance contract to Vectrus, a U.S. company. This led to severe consternation in Nuuk and a three year virtual halt to the talks between Nuuk, Copenhagen and Washington on U.S. military activity in Greenland. Negotiations were reignited in 2018, as a U.S. focus on the Arctic increased, and efforts to find a solution to the Thule issue intensified.

Danish concerns

The growing U.S. engagement in Greenland has raised concern among some lawmakers and commentators in Denmark, who fear that the U.S. aims to fuel Greenland’s secession from Denmark, which still holds sovereignty over the semi-autonomous island. Critics still smart from the 2019 suggestion from U.S. President Donald Trump that the U.S. would buy Greenland from Denmark. The suggestion was firmly rejected by Nuuk and Copenhagen.

Michael Aastrup Jensen, deputy chairman of the Foreign Policy Council of the Danish Parliament, aired his concern in the latest issue of the journal of the Danish Foreign Policy Society, “Udenrigs”:

“I fear that president Trump has a long term plan to draw Greenland away from its safe harbour within the Danish realm. Not necessarily by buying Greenland but by other means and we need to take it seriously. I am nervous how the great powers enter in this way and express interests in this part of our kingdom. We must have the courage to express ourselves more clearly about this issue,” Aastrup said in an interview.

The Danish government, however, has negotiated Wednesday’s deal side by side with Greenland, and Denmark’s foreign minister Jeppe Kofod expressed his full support: “I am both proud and glad that we have reached a result that will benefit in particular Greenland and Greenlandic companies. It shows that cooperation with the U.S. is strong and that together we can solve even very difficult problems,” he said in a press release.

The new deal — that also promises to bring closer economic cooperation between the U.S. and Greenland, U.S. language teachers and other U.S. inputs to Greenland’s civil society — concludes six years of protracted trials in U.S. courts and strenuous diplomatic negotiations between scores of U.S., Danish and Greenlandic diplomats.

For more than four decades before 2014, Greenland enjoyed substantial income from the servicing of Thule Air Base. The base, which covers more than 600 square kilometers, was long serviced by Greenland Contractors A/S, a Danish-Greenlandic firm partly owned by Greenland’s Self Rule Authority. In 2014, when Pentagon awarded the contract to Vectrus, Nuuk and Copenhagen asserted that the U.S. violated the agreements that allow the U.S. military presence in Greenland. Greenland calculated aggregated loses to the tune of some $30 million annually, a staggering sum for the small country’s economy.

More U.S. military

The new U.S.-Greenland agreement was signed in the midst of negotiations about potential increases to the American military presence in Greenland — an increase that follows U.S. concerns over China’s increasing presence in the Arctic and Russian mobilization in the region.

Particularly worrying to the U.S. has been the refurbishment of Russia’s Nagurskoye Air Base on Franz Josef Land, a group of islands only 900 kilometers from the North Pole. Russian fighter jets, refueling in the air, could potentially reach Thule Air Base from Nagurskoye much faster than previously. Thule Air Base serves as an important component of the U.S. missile defence system, protecting the U.S. mainland from missiles originating in Russia, China and elsewhere.

In 2019, Denmark’s former minister of defense, Claus Hjort Frederiksen, said that “the US wants more options for landing in Greenland, so that they can be more flexible, and that means substantial extensions to several airports.”

In 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed the reopening of a U.S. consulate in Nuuk and the Department of State now manages a $12 million package of U.S. support for the development of Greenland’s civilian business sector, mining and tourism. Pompeo was scheduled to visit Nuuk in May 2019, but cancelled due to troubles in the Middle East.

During a visit to Copenhagen in July this year, Pompeo expressed his wishes for continued cooperation with Denmark and his pleasure with the new developments in Greenland.

“Quite simply, it’s a new day for the United States and Greenland. Reopening the U.S. consulate in Nuuk reinvigorates an American presence that was dormant for far too long,” he said at a press briefing.

The new Thule deal might be the highest profile development in U.S.-Greenland relations since the U.S. consulate reopening, but it wasn’t the only one.

In August, a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Thomas Hudner, entered a large fjord outside Nuuk, the first ever such U.S. vessel to do so.

And this week, as the Thule deal was being signed, the head of the U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, Adm. Robert P. Burke, commander of the Allied Joint Force Command Naples, visited Copenhagen and the Faroe Island to discuss harbor facilities for U.S. naval vessels in Greenland and the Faroe Islands; Burke was also scheduled to visit to Nuuk, but that trip was cancelled at the last minute.