The latest U.S. Space Force Base is in located northern Greenland, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It sits on land the indigenous Inuit call Pituffik.
The site has been strategically critical to the U.S. since the Second World War when Greenland was a Danish colony and Denmark was controlled by Nazi Germany. During the war, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Danish Envoy Henrik Kauffmann concluded a security agreement by which the U.S> would “have the right to construct, maintain and operate such landing fields and sea plane facilities and radio and meteorological facilities as may be necessary.”
The Agreement also provided that the U.S. “respect all legitimate interests in Greenland …pertaining to the native population.” Soon after the establishment of Thule Air Base in 1952, the indigenous population was forcibly relocated by the Danish colonial administration. Pituffik was renamed Thule, and became America’s northernmost military installation, including a deepwater port and a 10,000 foot runway.
In subsequent years, the two nations concluded further international agreements pertaining to the construction, maintenance and operation by the U.S. of military facilities in Greenland. The arrangements served U.S. and Allied security interests well, through World War II, the Cold War and into the current geopolitical era.
The war in Ukraine, Russia’s Arctic presence, China’s quest for high north resources, and climate change have further enhanced the strategic value of Greenland to the U.S.. A trilateral U.S.-Denmark-Greenland Joint Committee was formed in 2004, with the Government of Greenland becoming an equal partner in the cooperation, and the American Air Base at Thule was uppermost on the agenda.
The governments agreed that for base maintenance and expansion, services would be procured directly from Danish/Greenlandic sources. This was confirmed in American law via a 2022 U.S. Court of Claims case holding that Greenlandic offerors must be accorded priority in U.S. government solicitations pertaining to the base.
On April 6, 2023, Thule reverted to its former indigenous Inuit name Pituffik and became home to the U.S. Space Base including the 821st Space Base Group, the 12th Space Warning Squadron and 23rd Space Operations Squadron enabling force projection, space superiority and Arctic scientific research.
“This renaming represents our wish to celebrate and acknowledge the rich cultural heritage of Greenland and its people,” Chief of Space Operations U.S. Space Force Gen. Chance Saltzman said at the ceremony.
U.S. Ambassador Alan Leventhal also acknowledged that the creation of this base “caused the movement in the 1950s of the community who called this place home, resulting in hardship and pain for those people and their descendants.”
Those descendants, among many Greenlanders, have been thinking about independence from Denmark, America’s NATO ally. On April 28, 2023, a Greenland Government Commission submitted a draft Constitution to the Parliament at Nuuk.
General Saltzman observed that “renewed strategic competition in the Arctic can be expected with Russia’s historically significant presence in the region and the People’s Republic of China self-proclaimed near-Arctic power, seeking opportunities to expand its influence.” Because of the geopolitics of our time, the U.S.-Greenland partnership is again a strategic priority. And by virtue of longstanding commitment and moral obligation, it merits strong American support.
A first step is to abide by international agreements and U.S. law which provide that services for American military bases, including our new Space Force, be procured directly from Greenlandic companies. This small step would yield substantial dividends including good will.
As the world’s largest island evolves to an independent state, the citizens will have choices including strategic partnerships. Cementing that partnership now by supporting indigenous Greenlandic business, is in the American interest.
Charles C. Adams, Jr. is a partner in the law firm Orrick, Herrington, Sutcliffe LLP and a former U.S. Ambassador to Finland.
Charles H. Norchi is the Benjamin Thompson Professor at the University of Maine School of Law