China tensions rising, US revives WWII-era Pacific airfield


If little known now, the airfield at Tinian was perhaps the most important – and the busiest – in the world in 1945, as its six hastily built runways played host to US B-29 bombers carrying out missions against Japan, some 2,300km away.

Including, on Aug 6 and Aug 9 of that year, the planes that dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” as the weapons were known, killed some 200,000 people.

In the last three years, money annually allocated to Indo-Pacific military construction costs has doubled, from US$1.8 billion in 2020 to just shy of US$3.6 billion in 2023, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

It’s part of a Pentagon strategy to open a range of flexible military bases, able to operate outside of the larger, longstanding installations in Japan, South Korea and the American island territory of Guam.

On Tinian, initial work started near the civilian airport in February 2022, before extending toward the World War II airfield on the north of the island.

Within two years, tarmac rehabilitation and the construction of fuel tanks are set to be completed, at a budget of at least US$162 million, part of contingency plans in the event “access to Andersen Air Force Base or other western Pacific locations is limited or denied”, according to Air Force financial documents reviewed by AFP.

Across multiple projects at Tinian, the total cost is unclear, “due to differing timelines and requirements, and the fact that not all work is being executed by the US Air Force,” the PACAF spokesperson said.


Tinian is not the only World War II-era base being revamped: new defense appropriations also include money for construction at Basa Air Base in the Philippines, “along with ongoing projects” at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Darwin and Tindal bases, according to the PACAF spokesperson.

“A lot of our strategy there is taking many of the World War II airfields that frankly are overgrown by the jungle, and there’s still concrete or asphalt underneath,” Wilsbach said in a September speech.

“We’re not making super bases anywhere. We’re looking for a place to get some fuel and some weapons, maybe get a bite to eat and take a nap and then get airborne again.”

Satellite images already show the extent of the work underway, including a new tarmac built just north of the civilian airport.

Not far off, satellite images show other military developments – from China, which has created artificial islets among the diplomatically contested Spratly Islands, used to host its own air bases.

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