A US F-15C fighter takes off from Tinian International Airport during Exercise Resilient Typhoon 2019. Photo: Scramble Magazine

The US has initiated major construction on Tinian, ostensibly to serve as a backup facility should its naval and air facilities on nearby Guam be put out of action for any reason. Growing concerns about Guam’s vulnerability to a missile attack from China or North Korea may have prompted this significant construction effort.

Tinian and its sister islands Guam and Saipan were crucial US staging areas during World War II. Tinian was also the staging area for the B-29 bombers that dropped the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Satellite images obtained by The Drive this month show land-clearing work northeast of Tinian International Airport, with past satellite imagery suggesting that work on that site had begun in May.

This month’s new construction with the Tinian Divert Airfield project, which includes plans for a new aircraft taxiway and parking apron totaling US$162 million and a projected completion date of October 2025.

A divert airfield is for emergency landings or when a primary or redeployment airfield is not needed or useable for operations. Such an airfield has the minimum level of equipment and capability.

“These military construction projects that we break ground on today represent the first of several capital investments in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,” said Captain Tim Liberatore, commanding officer of Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Marianas.

Brigadier-General Jeremy Sloane, commander of the 36th Wing, explained the importance of Tinian’s new facilities, saying, “Its airfield, roadway, port, and pipeline improvements will provide vital strategic, operational, and exercise capabilities for the US forces and support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

According to a 2016 Stars and Stripes article, Tinian’s infrastructure will support 12 tanker aircraft and all support personnel needed for diverting operations. Also, regular exercises will take place at the airfield for up to eight weeks each year.

Plans to strengthen US presence on Tinian were floated in the early 2010s, starting with environmental impact assessments of military construction activities on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

In December 2016, the US Air Force formally decided to select Tinian International Airport as a backup facility to Guam in case the latter is unavailable because of a natural disaster or enemy attack.

In May 2019, the Commonwealth Ports Authority, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands government, and the US Department of Defense finalized and signed a 40-year lease agreement worth $21.9 million for the USAF’s divert airfield on Tinian.

In addition, US military exercises in and around the island underscore its strategic importance. This month, the US conducted a joint forces field training exercise on Saipan and Tinian.

Activities in and around Tinian included maritime operations at Tinian Harbor, logistical hub staging activities at the San Jose Port, refueling supply point operation at the Tinian West Field, and cargo airdrop delivery systems on North Tinian Drop Zone.

In 2019, the US also conducted Exercise Resilient Typhoon, which involved US military aircraft concentrated at Guam, separating via a dispersal, recovering, and resuming operations at airfields in Guam, Tinian, Saipan, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau.

US construction efforts on Tinian are part of a larger $20 billion effort to disperse troops and advanced weaponry more fully across the Pacific, build up missile defense systems, and create a network of joint training ranges to push back against an increasingly assertive China.

Such systems would require support naval, air, space and cyber assets, including long-range radar capabilities, and would operate dispersed along with small islands and archipelagos throughout the Western Pacific.

Guam remains the focal point of US power projection in the Western Pacific, and its strategic importance continues to grow amid belligerent threats from China and North Korea.

The US military strategy in the Pacific assumes that Guam will always be available as a staging area. However, the US faces a disadvantage in the Western Pacific, as its facilities in the region consist of a small number of large, isolated, and in effect undefended sites located on a handful of islands, all within the range of Chinese and North Korean missiles.

In 2016, China fielded its DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), a road-mobile, nuclear-capable weapon with a range of 4,000 kilometers, making it the first Chinese missile that can hit Guam. In addition, China could use its H-6K strategic bombers to attack Guam using air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). The country released images showing an H-6K launching ALCMs at a target that resembles Anderson Air Force Base in Guam.  

North Korea has fielded the Hwasong-12 “Guam Killer” missile this year, with an estimated range of 4,500km. North Korea has particularly valued the capability to attack US facilities and territories directly, enabling it to break the logic of extended deterrence in the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has also threatened a missile strike against Guam, releasing a video in 2017 showing one of its missiles speeding toward the island.

The US also has plans to deploy land-based Tomahawk cruise missiles in the Pacific as part of its dispersed operations doctrine. However, US Pacific allies such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia may not be willing to host these controversial weapons for political, economic and security reasons.

As a result, Tinian may become an alternative launch site for US land-based Tomahawks, alongside other US territories in the Pacific.

Thus, in the event of a great power conflict between the US and China in the Pacific, Tinian and its sister islands Guam and Saipan will undoubtedly play a central role in US operations.