Satellite photos show how the US Air Force is reclaiming a WWII-era airfield from the jungle to prepare to dodge Chinese missiles

Air Force C-130J Tinian
A US Air Force C-130J takes off from Tinian in February 2018.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Christopher Quail
  • The US Air Force is developing more dispersed bases to counter the threat posed by China's missiles.

  • That effort includes construction at established facilities and the reclamation of disused outposts.

  • Satellite photos show how far work has come on Tinian, a remote but strategically located Pacific island.

The US Air Force has been scouring the Pacific for more airfields, seeking alternatives to the handful of sprawling bases in the region that it has built up and relied on for decades.

The search is part of an effort to disperse US forces to counter the growing reach of the Chinese military, which has developed long-range missiles that could strike the US's main operating bases hard at the beginning of a war.

US troops have ventured to remote corners of the Pacific and to bases rarely used since World War II — including the island of Tinian, where they're reclaiming an airfield that last saw major use by B-29 bombers in 1944 and 1945.

Tinian International Airport satellite image
Tinian International Airport in August 2021.SkyFi

Tinian "has one airfield that's the international airfield, and there's another airfield, which was the largest B-29 base during World War II. It is largely overgrown by the jungle, but the runways and the taxiways are still underneath," Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the commander of US Pacific Air Forces, said at an Air & Space Forces Association conference in September.

The Allies captured Tinian from the Japanese in August 1944, bringing US bombers within 1,500 miles of Japan. US engineers quickly began building what became the biggest and busiest air base of the war. US planes were eventually flying from six 8,500-foot runways at West Field and North Field, the latter of which launched the B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

West Field is now the site of Tinian International Airport and has one operating runway, while North Field is no longer in use. The island is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory.

Tinian International Airport satellite image
Tinian International Airport in November.SkyFi

US military exercises, especially for austere and expeditionary operations, have continued on Tinian, but the airport is small and of limited use to modern aircraft — Marines set up mobile arresting gear to land F/A-18D jets there during an exercise in 2012.

In 2016, the Air Force selected the airport to host a "divert airfield" to support its training and ensure its aircraft could meet mission requirements if access to other airfields in the region was limited or denied. Officials broke ground there in February 2022.

The refurbished runway, just north of the airport's main runway, is meant to support agile combat employment, or ACE, a concept for dispersed operations that envisions aircraft and airmen deploying from main "hub" bases to less developed "spoke" bases.

ACE is part of Air Force operations around the world, but it was developed with the Pacific in mind.

Tinian Pacific Island map
The US Air Force wants a "divert airfield" on Tinian to use if access to other bases in the western Pacific is limited or denied.Google Maps

"We're going to be clearing out the jungle" on that airfield, Wilsbach said in September. "We're going to be resurfacing some of the surfaces there so that we will have a very large and very functional agile-combat-employment base — an additional base to be able to operate from — and we have several other projects like that around the region that we'll be getting after."

Documents released in March as part of the Air Force's 2024 budget request outlined several projects at Tinian, asking for $78 million for them during that fiscal year.

An airfield-development project includes "demolition of World War II-era airfield pavements," clearing and leveling surfaces, and installing drainage, utilities, and secure fencing, the documents say. A fuel-pipeline project involves installing storage tanks, pipes, and safety equipment to allow ships to unload fuel for transport to the airfield by pipeline and truck.

Marine Corps FA-18D Tinian West Field
A mobile arresting gear catches an F/A-18D at Tinian's West Field in May 2012.US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. J. Gage Karwick

A parking-apron project involves paving aircraft parking and taxiways, the latter of which have to meet the Pentagon's "standards for ground control operations for large frame aircraft," the documents said. The apron would be big enough for 12 KC-135 and KC-46 tanker aircraft and related fueling equipment.

"The airfield, roadway, port, and pipeline improvements will provide vital strategic, operational, and exercise capabilities for the US forces," Capt. Gerald Peden, a spokesperson for Pacific Air Forces, said in response to questions about the work at Tinian. "The expanded divert airfield on Tinian will offer a valuable additional operating location for various peacetime activities, including responses to natural disasters in the region."

"Air Force engineers are scheduled to remove the vegetation that have penetrated through the cracks and joints of the old pavement surfaces. This vegetation consists mostly of grass, bushes, and small trees" that will be removed manually or with heavy equipment, Peden added. "This is the first step in preparing the airfield for the actual repair work."

Making ACE 'meaningful'

Air Force C-130 North Field Tinian
Japanese, Australian, and US C-130s over Tinian's North Field in February 2015.US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson

Tinian is isolated, but the investment isn't. Construction there "is part of a larger effort to expand facilities and general basing options in the Pacific," including on Guam, a nearby US territory that hosts major military facilities, Peden said.

The work on Guam includes upgrades to the taxiway and parking areas at Northwest Field, which closed in 1949 but has remained in limited use. There has been more activity at Northwest Field as the focus on ACE has increased, and Peden said it "is now capable of supporting various aircraft operations."

The budget documents also listed projects at allies' airfields. Money is allotted for work at Tindal air base — including $93 million to build a parking apron for six B-52 bombers — and Darwin air base, both of which are in Australia's Northern Territory.

The documents also requested $35 million for a new parking apron for US military aircraft at Cesar Basa Air Base in the Philippines, one of several bases where Manila has granted the US military expanded access.

Air Force Anderson Guam airmen runway
US Air Force engineers conduct a rapid-airfield-repair drill at Guam's Northwest Field in October 2019.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Michael S. Murphy

Speaking with reporters before the budget documents were released, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the service's top civilian official, said the Air Force was "generally trying to expand the target set" and "to make the idea of agile combat employment meaningful" by having "places where we can go that are ready for us."

The agreement to increase access to Philippine bases, which after long-delayed implementation now applies to nine facilities, "was something of a coup," Kendall said at an event this month, adding that the Pentagon was talking to Japan "about being able to operate off of some of their military bases as well as our own so we have more flexibility."

US partners elsewhere in the Pacific "offer other opportunities, but they are going to require investment," Kendall said, echoing Wilsbach and other officials who stressed that continued funding was needed to establish new facilities, deploy pre-positioned equipment, and conduct effective ACE exercises.

Japan Australia Air Force Tinian Cope North
Australian and Japanese forces during an exercise on Tinian in February 2019.Master Sgt. JT May III

"Those are some of the resources that I argue for when I go back to headquarters," Wilsbach said in September, adding that in recent budgets, "I feel like I'm getting the resources I need, especially on construction."

"The one area where I can handle a lot more resources is the purchasing of the pre-positioning of equipment — of parts, fuel, water, food," Wilsbach said. "We're putting together packages that we're pre-positioning in theater, and so I can handle a significant amount of more resources to purchase that stuff and then get it out into the region."

Simply spreading out may not be enough to sustain operations in a war. Experts say more dispersed bases would put additional strain on a logistical network that adversaries are sure to attack and would require installing a mix of active defenses to shoot down incoming missiles and passive defenses such as hardened shelters and camouflage.

The Air Force is working with the rest of the military to address those challenges, Thomas Lawhead, the acting deputy chief of staff for Air Force Futures, said at an event this month.

Air Force F-35A Tinian
A US Air Force F-35A takes off from Tinian International Airport in February 2022.US Air Force/Senior Airman Joseph P. LeVeille

The Air Force has used recent budgets to "put a good amount of money" into pre-positioning equipment and is working with the Army, which has traditionally been responsible for air defense, on "an integrated air- and missile-defense mix study" in addition to a study of Guam's air- and missile-defense needs, Lawhead said.

In a major war, ACE, base defense, and logistics "all need to be orchestrated and commanded and controlled together" and "are what's going to enable us to actually generate" flight operations in such a conflict, Lawhead said, adding that the service would continue to refine ACE through exercises by Pacific Air Forces and other commands.

China and North Korea have made clear that they could target Guam and islands nearby, which adds to the urgency of the Air Force's preparations to use and defend its outposts there.

"Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are strategic locations that require agility to defend if we find ourselves in a contested and degraded environment," Peden said. "Due to operational security, we can't go into details on the exact locations, but our intent is to further resource this region."

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