This is part 2 of our look at forward bases in the
Pacific. In the first part (see, “Forward Bases in the Pacific”), we looked at general
considerations and issues. In this post,
we’ll take a closer look at the challenges involved in establishing a forward
base by looking at the specific example of Tinian.
The Pacific island of Tinian has been cited as an example of
a location where the US could establish a forward base for operations against
China. In fact, the island has a
commercial airfield that is being expanded for military use. In addition, the island has been proposed for
extensive use as a military training site.
As a reminder, Tinian is a U.S. territory that is part of
the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). It is located 1700 miles from Taiwan, 2000
miles or so from the South China Sea, and just 123 miles north of Guam.
|Tinian - Circled in Red|
Tinian serves as an excellent example of both the potential
benefits and the enormous challenges to establishing bases in the Pacific
theater as counters to Chinese expansion.
Let’s look at some of the issues related to establishing bases in the
Nobody seems to have the slightest doubt that Guam will be a
major day-one target for the Chinese and will almost certainly be put out of
action, if not totally destroyed. Having
an alternate base(s) is plainly beneficial and will allow us to stay in the
fight even if we lose a major base like Guam.
In addition, the more bases we have, the more the Chinese will have to
divide their attention and weapons which enhances the chances of survival for
Multiple bases provide flexibility and reduce
predictability. For example, if a naval
force can put into any of several bases for replenishment and refueling, it
reduces the predictability of the event as opposed to having only one base
which the Chinese can then easily ‘stake out’ and wait for the naval force to
come to them.
Pacific bases also provide the opportunity to train in the
relevant Pacific environment and with a degree of privacy. The isolated nature of island bases also
allows for the possibility of live fire training.
Pacific bases provide strategic and operational benefits by
allowing staging from various, widely dispersed locations and expanded air
operations and sensor coverage of the surrounding areas.
In short, the benefits of multiple Pacific bases are
potentially significant and fairly self-evident.
Now as an example of the challenges in establishing Pacific
bases, let’s consider the specifics of the current efforts to establish and
enhance Tinian as a base.
Airfield Expansion - Tinian’s commercial airfield is
being expanded to accommodate a larger military presence.
imagery shows major construction at Tinian International Airport that we can
say with near certainty is linked directly to plans to expand the facility's
ability to act as a divert airfield for the U.S. military in a crisis. More
than a decade in the making, the project is intended to provide a vital
alternative operating location to the U.S. Air Force's massive Andersen Air
Force Base on the island of Guam, just to the southwest of Tinian, should that base
be put out of action for any reason.
ground-breaking ceremony was held on the island in February of this year to
mark the formal start of this work, which will cost approximately $161.8
million and is excepted to be completed by October 2025.
Of course, this is still a minor expansion compared to, say,
Guam, and thus cannot serve as a true replacement if Guam were destroyed.
after the divert airfield project is complete, Tinian's airfield facilities
will pale in comparison to those on Guam. Still, they will give the Air Force,
as well as other branches of the U.S. military, a more viable and immediate
alternative to Andersen, especially when it comes to supporting larger
aircraft, like aerial refueling tankers and cargo planes, should flight
operations come to a halt on Guam as a result of enemy action or for any other
Fuel Storage - Hand-in-hand with the airfield
expansion is the establishment of a major fuel storage and handling
facility. After all, airfields are of no
use without fuel !
complete divert airfield effort is also set to include the construction of new
fuel storage facilities at Tinian's main port on the southern end of the island
and a pipeline linking them to the airport … 
The fuel pipeline from the port to the airfield will be
around 4 miles long which, unfortunately, represents a significant vulnerability
in that it is a very long stretch of critical structure that is vulnerable to
easy destruction anywhere along the line.
At one end of the spectrum of threats, a single missile hit anywhere
along the four mile pipe will put the airfield out of action within a short
period. At the other end of the spectrum
a single saboteur could also destroy the pipe with ease. The lack of base defenses makes any attack a
near certain success.
Training – The US envisioned a major expansion of
training facilities and opportunities on Tinian. However, various issues arose which
drastically curtailed those plans.
U.S. military is dramatically scaling back its proposed training plans from the
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the territory’s governor
announced this week.
new notional proposal contemplates similar training activities that are already
currently conducted on the island of Tinian but with an eye towards training
for the future that is significantly less impactful and harmful to the
environment and the way of life for the people of Tinian than the 2015
proposal,” the press release said.
new draft proposal also gets rid of the planned landing ramps on Unai Chulu in
Tinian, which environmental officials warned would harm coral reefs, and a
planned artillery range on Tinian that would have destroyed historic landmarks
from World War II.
Environmental Impact – As we have seen repeatedly
with military basing and training efforts in the US, environmental concerns
seem to outweigh combat readiness.
the CNMI Joint Military Training plan was first proposed in 2015, it prompted
widespread backlash, including more than 27,000 comments on the draft
environmental impact statement, even though the commonwealth is home only to
about 50,000 people.
Environmental Protection Agency warned the plans for Tinian could contaminate
the island’s aquifer, and the environmental analysis for the CNMI Joint
Military Training plan estimated 200 historic sites on Tinian would be
proposal prompted a 2016 lawsuit from the Honolulu Earthjustice office in
partnership with local organizations.
And, of course, what would a post be without some official
military stupidity? Here’s today’s
want to confuse the enemy about where you actually are," Secretary of the
Air Force Frank Kendall told Aviation Week's Brian Everstine in an interview in
March. "So some decoys in other locations will be helpful to do
No one is going to be fooled by some decoys – whatever those
are. The enemy will know where we
We’ll be where the resupply ships are sailing to and docking.
We’ll be where the radar emissions are coming from.
We’ll be where the non-stop communications are
We’ll be where the massive numbers of operating aircraft are
We’ll be where the hundreds of moving trucks and support
vehicles are operating.
We’ll be where the hundred/thousands of people running
We’ll be where the extensive anti-air defenses are.
To believe some decoys in other locations are going to fool
the Chinese is delusional. With
satellite, cyber, and human observers, the Chinese will have extensive
recordings, photos, and verification about where we’re constructing and
There are very few examples (none?) of an isolated, island
base successfully defending itself from an attacker. That being the case, one has to ask whether
the advantages are worth the eventual loss of the defending forces.
While the benefits are self-evident, the challenges are
A major issue is that we need to settle the conflict between
environmental concerns and combat readiness.
At the moment, environmental concerns reign supreme, however, this is an
unwise balance. Environmental concerns
are important and should be accorded due weight in all non-combat civilian
applications but the military represents our national survival and
environmental concerns cannot trump national survival. It does no good to have a clean environment
and be conquered. We need to come to
grips with this and establish the legal primacy of combat readiness over
This is not to say that we totally ignore environmental
concerns and run roughshod over the areas we operate and train in but we cannot
allow truly vital operations and training to be negated by snail darters (look
it up if you don’t get the reference).
The Hawaii fuel leak fiasco is an excellent example. The major Pacific fuel storage facility in
Hawaii is going to be shut down without replacement due to fuel leaks. This represents a major blow to our
operational capability in the Pacific.
China is now scratching that target off their high priority target list
without ever having fired a shot ! Of
course, the blame for this lies entirely with the military for failing to act
in good faith as stewards of the people’s money and trust. Hopefully, this will serve as a lesson (it
won’t; nothing seems to get through to
military leadership) to the US military that it cannot totally ignore
Any Pacific base that is close enough to China and combat
operational areas will, pretty much by definition, be within range of Chinese
cruise/ballistic missile strikes. This
mandates robust base defenses which, unfortunately, is the flip side of forcing
the Chinese to dilute their offensive efforts.
While the Chinese will be forced to spread their attentions and
resources to deal with multiple bases, we, too, will have to spread our
attentions and resources to protect those multiple bases. Are the benefits worth the dilution of
resources required to establish and vigorously defend multiple bases? The answer to that depends on our overall
military strategy … which we lack.
Honolulu Civil Beat website, “Northern Mariana Islands
Says US Military Agreed To Scale Back Training”, Anita Hofschneider, 1-Apr-2022,
The Drive website, “Construction Of Airbase On Tinian
Island In Case Guam Gets Knocked Out Has Begun”, Joseph Trevithick,