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US Military Reclaims WWII-Era Airfield to Counter China’s Growing Threat

The US Air Force is set to resurrect the historic Pacific island airfield of Tinian, which played a pivotal role in World War II as the launching point for atomic bombings on Japan.

Countering Potential Hostilities With China

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This strategic move is part of the Air Force’s broader efforts to expand its basing options in preparation for potential hostilities with China. The Commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, revealed the plan in an interview with Nikkei Asia, emphasizing that Tinian’s North Airfield will become an “extensive” facility once reclaimed from decades of jungle growth.

Restoring Tinian’s Strategic Airfield

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Tinian, situated within the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands—a US territory in the Pacific, will undergo significant renovations. The project aims to bring the historic airfield back to operational status, adding to the US military’s presence in the region. While no specific timeline was provided, Gen. Wilsbach indicated that substantial progress would be made in the coming months.

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Historical Significance of Tinian

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Tinian, alongside Saipan and Guam, has a profound history of hosting US air operations. During World War II, these islands, once captured from Japanese forces, became home to fleets of B-29 Superfortress bombers. These aircraft were responsible for devastating bombing campaigns on Japan, including the infamous March 10, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo that marked history’s deadliest bombing raid.

North Field’s World War II Legacy

North Field on Tinian, with its extensive infrastructure and personnel, was a critical hub during World War II. It became the world’s largest and busiest airport due to its role in launching B-29 bombers for missions over Japan. Notably, it was from North Field that the B-29 bomber “Enola Gay” departed on August 6, 1945, to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, ushering in the nuclear age.

Contemporary Plans and Funding

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The US Air Force’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2024 allocates $78 million for construction projects on Tinian island. This investment aligns with the military’s Agile Combat Employment (ACE) strategy, which seeks to disperse forces across multiple locations to complicate adversary planning and enhance flexibility. The strategy is especially crucial as China continues to expand its missile capabilities.

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ACE Strategy and Dispersed Basing

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The ACE strategy focuses on shifting operations from large, centralized bases to a network of smaller, dispersed locations. This approach reduces vulnerability to attacks on major bases and adds unpredictability to US military planning. By dispersing airpower assets, the military aims to make targeting more challenging for potential adversaries, including China.

Tinian’s Role in ACE

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Tinian has already played a role in implementing the ACE concept. During the Agile Reaper exercise in March, the US Air Force operated F-22 stealth fighters from Tinian’s international airport. This demonstrated the capability to function in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment—a critical aspect of ACE strategy. Guam, located 200 kilometers south of Tinian, also featured in these exercises.

Countering China’s Missile Threat

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With China identified as the Pentagon’s “pacing threat” and its growing missile forces, the US Air Force seeks to ensure that its airpower remains resilient and effective. Dispersed basing and ACE tactics are part of the strategy to achieve this goal.

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Preparing for the Unpredictable

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Gen. Wilsbach noted that while these measures create targeting challenges and may result in some hits, they ensure that a significant portion of US forces can continue to operate effectively, thus maintaining an advantage even in a contested environment.

Ongoing Military Adaptation

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The US military’s adaptation to evolving global threats, particularly in the Pacific, underscores its commitment to preserving national security and strategic capabilities. As the revitalization of Tinian’s airfield progresses, it signifies another step in this ongoing process.

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