Thule Air Base (Thule AB) is a military airfield on the northwest coast of Greenland
. It, along with Incirlik
, is one of the most-recognized military airbases of Cold War
warplanning. It is a United States Air Force
airbase, despite being on what is technically Danish
Before the U.S joined World War II as a combatant, the United States and Denmark signed an agreement under which the United States - concerned for its prerogatives in the Western Hemisphere, and with the security of ferry routes to its Lend-Lease partners in Europe - agreed to provide for the defense of Greenland. On April 9, 1941, Cordell Hull signed The Agreement Relating to the Defense of Greenland - a pragmatic diplomatic document title which probably stands unmatched to this day for its no-nonsense functionality and comprehensibility.
Starting in 1941, the U.S. began to dot the Greenland coast with small installations, pursuing the large advantage that Greenland's position gave it - that of allowing weather observations in order to predict European conditions. By 1943, when it was fully engaged, it had started whole new networks of weather posts to increase meteorological accuracy. As World War II drew to a close, the newly-formed US Air Force was already looking carefully at what its post-war role would be. No one had any doubt that long-range bombing would be at the forefront. The aircraft at the time were unable to reliably carry the large and heavy atomic weapons of the time far enough to strike targets inside the U.S.S.R. directly from bases in the CONUS, and the U.S. Air Force began an aggressive campaign to secure airbases around the world, from which to project American power.
Greenland was a natural location for such, for a number of reasons. For one, it was directly en route to the USSR from the central United States via the direct polar route. For another, the northern reaches of Canada and Greenland were already beginning to see the beginning of radar picket operations which would in time morph into the DEW Line and BMEWS - and installations of that nature needed central control and maintenance facilities.
Thule means, as Webby will tell you, 'The northernmost place in the world,' roughly. It is up there - it's ~700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and the U.S. Air Force's northernmost outpost. The USAF decided to place an air base there in 1950, and the U.S. and Denmark codified the activities of the USAF in the new North Atlantic Treaty. Greenland became the 'Greenland Defense Area' and the US began construction of an airbase with the massive effort of sending over 12,000 workers direct to the Greenland coast via ship from Virginia. Between 1951 and 1953, thousands of U.S. workers and military personnel beavered away, and by 1953 a functioning air force base was carved from the ice.
In the mid-1950s, the U.S. Air Force launched Operation Homerun. This was a series of photoreconnaissance flights, with associated air-to-air refueling missions, carried out from Thule. Between March and May of that year, these missions surveyed huge portions of the northern border of the U.S.S.R. and photographed their way into the interior, coming over the North Pole. Their work was used to plan bomber routes, and before PVO Stranyy was organized to bar them from their task, they had surveyed most of the northern slope and border of the USSR.1
The 1960s saw Thule reach the apex of its duty cycle and its population - over 10,000 people called the base home in 1965, after which the base contingent began to drop. BMEWS was first built nearby in the early part of the decade. From the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, Thule served as an an active NIKE HERCULES air defense installation. By the end of the 1960s, the bombers were moving back south to CONUS, although Thule remained important as a 'dispersal base' and an emergency staging or landing facility during alerts and drills. The end of Thule's active nuclear deterrence duties correlates approximately with the crash of an Operation Chrome Dome B-52 mission nearby on January 21, 1968.
Today, Thule remains an active base - but is assigned to Air Force Space Command as home of the 21st Space Wing, and is concerned with continuing BMEWS duties as well as with supporting U.S. global satellite control systems.
1 - Cowley, Robert, ed. The Cold War: A Military History. Random House: New York, 2006. 182-4.
Iron Noder 2010