Air Force officials announced that the island of Tinian, once home to the 509th Composite Group, which dropped the atom bombs on Japan, is its choice for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands PACAF Divert Activities and Exercises Initiative, according to a PACAF news release.
Tinian would serve as a divert field to support PACAF (Pacific Air Forces) while also “ensuring the capability to meet mission requirements in the event access to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, or other western Pacific locations is limited or denied,” according to the release. The move is part of the United States “Pivot to the Pacific,” which has seen a bolstering of United States forces and infrastructure investments across the region, including Singapore and Australia.
“I am pleased to announce Tinian as the preferred alternative for this initiative and greatly appreciate the contributions of the people of the CNMI community to our nation’s defense,” said Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force. “We believe this initiative will provide critical strategic operational and exercise capabilities for U.S. forces and provide economic benefits to the local community.”
As part of the initiative, Tinian International Airport will undergo infrastructure improvements in order to support up to 12 tanker aircraft and associated crew and support personnel who will be based there for divert operations. The Air Force says exercises will be held up to 8 weeks a year.
Tinian International Airport stands on the site of the former West Field, which operated U.S. military aircraft during World War II. The island was seized from its Japanese garrison by the Marine Corps in 1944, and became a major air base, with almost the entire island devoted to two airfields and the associated supporting infrastructure. Tinian’s North Field housed, among other units, the 509th Composite Group, which dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. North Field was later abandoned and redeveloped after the war.
“The divert initiative in CNMI will create the only divert airfield in the Western Pacific and provide the U.S. Air Force the capability to conduct either temporary or sustained refueling operations from an additional location in the region,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force. “It will also give us another location to use when supporting contingency or natural disaster responses in the region.”
Other options for the divert field included Saipan, just 5 miles north of Tinian across the Saipan Channel, and a hybrid alternative. Tinian is located approximately 50 miles north of Guam, home to Andersen Air Force Base. Tinian has a population of more than 3,000 people, and its main industry is tourism.
“During the comment period, we heard from government agencies and community members on both Saipan and Tinian. They expressed an overwhelming desire to have the divert initiative on Tinian,” said Gen. Lori Robinson, commander, Pacific Air Forces. “In addition to enhancing our national defense, the expansion of the airport on Tinian will enhance U.S. Pacific Command’s disaster relief and humanitarian assistance capabilities in the region.”