Tinian Airfield Re-Awakens from a 70-Year Slumber in the Jungle

Tinian Airfield Re-Awakens from a 70-Year Slumber in the Jungle

Tinian Airfield Re-Awakens from a 70-Year Slumber in the Jungle

At the height of World War II in 1945, Tinian Airfield was the busiest airfield in the world as hundreds of B-29s gathered here for the final bombing campaign of Japan. Tinian had been seized from the Japanese in a bloody campaign in late summer of 1944 and now roared with the sounds of thousands of Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones, one of the biggest aircraft piston engines ever made. One time in Cleveland in the 1990s I stepped out of our car and immediately recognized the sound as one of the few remaining B-29s flew overhead.  It was exhilarating to hear this roar of American power overhead.

Now Tinian is coming back to life as one of the new dispersal airfields to deter China. Pacific Air Forces Commander, General Ken Wilsbach is overseeing the re-birth of this giant facility. Tinian and several more airfields and bases are coming back to life in the Western Pacific. Disperse and harden is the key to building the infrastructure to deter China from moving on Taiwan and beyond. Tinian is American soil and part of the U.S. Territory of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Harden and disperse – the key tenets to building deterrence in the Western Pacific

The Tinian complex was a no brainer when reviewing the infrastructure of the Second Island Chain.  The second island chain starts in Palau, then moves to Ulithi Atoll of the Federated States of Micronesia, the gathering point for the largest Naval force in history, the combined American and British fleets that gathered here in 1944 and 1945, next is Guam, a U.S. Territory and then Tinian and Saipan, the two major islands of the U.S. Territory of the Northern Mariana Islands.  The Second Island Chain will be the pivotal location for assembling and projecting force to deter China from moving on Taiwan or the Philippines.

Palau is already the location of major infrastructure improvement with the establishment of an “Over the Horizon” radar complex that will allow a deep look into China.  Saipan is receiving improvements as well as Guam.  Guam is undergoing significant improvements, but is a large aggregation of basing activities, but possibly a dangerous over-concentration.  Dispersing the basing infrastructure greatly complicates the targeting problem set of the Chinese missileers, ready to rain DF-17 and DF-26 missiles onto the concentrated aircraft parking aprons of Anderson Air Force Base on Guam.

Re-opening the Tinian airfield complex is a significant step forward in dispersing the force structure in the second island chain.  What is also needed is hardening.  There are two components to hardening the basing infrastructure, first is missile and air defense, second are hardened aircraft and logistics storage structures.  At the height of the Reagan buildup in the late 1980s, a massive civil engineering effort was undertaken to build pervasive and numerous hardened aircraft shelters.  A dense Patriot air defense missile belt provided a strong deterrence to any Soviet first strike against NATO airfields.  This hardening of the dispersed infrastructure is what is needed urgently in the second island chain.  The Air Force Public Affairs pictures of Anderson will not look so impressive after the neatly lined up and exposed bombers and tankers are smoldering remains from a Chinese missile strike.  Missile and air defense are the highest priority of Admiral Aquilino, the Indo-Pacific Commander.  The Admiral told Congress in April that “a 360-degree, integrated air and missile defense on Guam, remains the highest priority.”  This will also provide coverage to the Tinian airfield complex.

Air Force and Navy need more Civil Engineers and Base Defenders

 To accelerate this dispersion and hardening effort, the Air Force and Navy need an expansion of their Civil Engineering and Base Defense force structures.  They can either spend years expanding this component of their service or the Department of Defense can do something creative and innovative.  Army Secretary Christine Wormuth seems intent on downsizing the size of the Army starting with Army Special Operations.  Perhaps instead, the Army Secretary can offer two to four Army Brigades of Engineers, Military Police, and Air Defenders to trade in their Army green uniforms for Air Force and Navy Blue (the field uniforms of the Air Force and Navy are also green the last time I checked).

The Army needed desperate and rapid help from Air Force and Navy in the Iraq War for several years to maintain the land convoys moving supplies to the dispersed base camps.  Many Airmen and Sailors stepped in to make things happen and did heroic jobs.  The Military Services should be thinking purple and in the Western Pacific, the Air Force and Navy will be in the lead, so transferring Army units en masse makes intuitive and logical sense.  Re-storing the massive Tinian airfield complex to life will be a significant and historic job.  Engineers will be needed and then the base complex will need defense capabilities to deter Chinese missile or special operations attack.

More Missile Defense, hardened structures, and more small transports for the Western Pacific basing infrastructure

Admiral Aquilino is making the priorities clear for the massive re-opening of dispersed and hardened facilities across the Second Island Chain (and the First and Third Island chains for that matter).  Another innovative way to establish missile and air defense in the Guam, Tinian, Saipan portion of the Second Island Chain is to renovate and tow one of the Ticonderoga Class, Aegis Missile capable Cruisers languishing in shameful condition at the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to Guam, Tinian, or Saipan for use as missile launching platforms.  Another opportunity for the Army to support the main effort is for the Army to re-embrace its maritime heritage and rapidly build up its paltry, but once mighty, fleet of small support vessels to create the taxi service for rapid movement within the Pacific Island chains.  The Army substantially surrendered this historical mission space to Navy in 2011, but appears to be getting back in the game, but needs to move faster.

Getting the Department of Defense to move with alacrity on anything other than painting rocks or picking up pinecones is always hard, but the urgency of the need to disperse and harden the basing infrastructure should be treated as a national security imperative and receive even more funding in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.  With $9.1B for Fiscal Year 2024, funds should be available to move the Department with a purpose on getting Tinian and the Second Island Chain ready.  Soon, the faint memory of the thunderous Wright R-3350 will be replaced with afterburner of the F-135 engine putting out 40,000 plus pounds of thrust on the Tinian runways.

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Author: John Mills