Major Airfield Expansion On Wake Island Seen By Satellite As U.S. Preps For Pacific Fight

America’s remote island outpost in the Pacific is an essential fallback point for pushing airpower west during a major conflict.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


America's remote outpost deep in the Pacific, situated roughly between Japan and Hawaii, Wake Island serves as a reserve airfield should American airpower have to fallback from the far reaches of Western Pacific during a peer state conflict. It also provides a reverse utility, working as a staging ground in a crisis for air combat missions heading west, into Russia's and especially China's highly-defended anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) bubbles that emanate far from their shores. With the ongoing 'pivot towards the Pacific' and with adversary A2/AD capabilities creeping farther east, Wake Island is more important than it has been in decades, possibly since World War II. 

The restricted access island—which is one of the most remote on Earth—is an unincorporated territory of the United States that is also claimed by the Marshall Islands. The vast majority of the atoll is taken up by a 9,800-foot runway—long enough to accommodate anything in the Pentagon's inventory—and the airfield infrastructure and staging areas that surround it. Although it supports some missile defense tests with launchpads scattered around its southernmost tip, it is best known for being an emergency divert point for aircraft crossing the Pacific and as a stopping point for U.S. military aircraft moving from the U.S. to Asia.

Hornets flying over Wake Island. U.S. military aircraft often route over or stop at the island during transits across the Pacific. , USAF

New satellite imagery that The War Zone obtained from Planet Labs dated June 25th, 2020 shows that substantial improvements to the base have occurred recently. Based on archival satellite imagery, the major expansions to the airfield began early this year and are still underway today.

The new satellite image is posted below and you can see a full-resolution version of here. It shows the large eastern apron area's big expansion, as well as an enlarged secondary apron area on the west end on the runway. The runway itself has been completely rebuilt.

Full reduced resolution satellite image from 6/25/2020, PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
Crop of the major airfield and support area from the 6/25/2020 image. , PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
Similar crop from a satellite image taken on 10/8/2016, Google Earth
The 6/25/2020 image shows the large apron expansion on the eastern side of the airfield, as well as a ton of activity and construction in the support area to the north. , PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
10/8/2016 image of the same area. , Google Earth
A close-up of the staging area north of the airfield from the 6/25/2020 image. , PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
The same area in 10/8/2016, Google Earth
The western apron expansion is shown in the 6/25/2020 image, as well as the rehabilitated runway. , PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
The same area from the 10/8/2016 image. , Google Earth

The Pentagon has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the secretive strategic stronghold in recent years. These expenditures have included the apron and runway improvements, as well as a large solar farm that can be seen in the western area of the island in the recent satellite photo. It's more likely than not that even more investment into the island's infrastructure will be made in the near term as rising tensions with China, North Korea, and Russia have reinvigorated the strategic importance of the remote base.

Beyond its clear logistical utility, acting as a major hub where there isn't another for thousands of miles, it sits outside the range of China's and North Korea's medium-range ballistic missiles, and largely at the end, if not entirely out of range, of their intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Guam, which is situated about 1,500 miles further west, is well within the range of these weapons. 

During the opening stages of a major conflict with China, America's bases that are within range of these missiles would be overwhelmed by them, at the very least knocking bases like Kadena in Okinawa out of commission for a substantial period of time. These strikes would likely be layered with cruise missile attacks, making them harder to defend against and upping the odds that Beijing could neuter American airpower throughout the region in the opening exchanges of a conflict. 

Guam, which hosts a key U.S. naval base and the sprawling Andersen Air Force Base, would be targeted as well, although at greater range. This island has a THAAD missile battery that has been in place for years to fend-off ballistic missile attacks specifically, but the sheer numbers a foe like China can fire at the island makes defending it a highly dubious exercise. Rebuffing more limited attacks from a foe like North Korea is far more relevant to the island's defenses. Other airfields in the Marianas Island Chain, or within the MRBM and IRBM range in general, are even more vulnerable.  

USS Theodore Roosevelt operating off Wake Island., USN

So, you can see how Wake Island quickly becomes a key fallback position during what could be an incredibly violent and fast-moving conflict, at least at first. The island itself can be quickly fortified with its own air defenses and those based on forward-deployed U.S. Navy surface combatants sailing between the Chinese mainland and the island. Wake Island is also thought to be within the outer engagement umbrella of the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptors based in Fort Greely, Alaska, which are designed to counter low-volumes of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats. 

The idea of making Wake Island becoming a hub of airpower activity that looks to overcome the 'tyranny of distance' that is so closely associated with conflict in the Pacific Theater is already being trialed. Just last year, B-2 Spirits used the airfield for the first time as a forward re-arming and refueling point (FARP), with their sorties beginning at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, not Guam. This would be the likely arrangement if U.S. installations to the east were threatened or destroyed during a conflict.

B-2 Spirit operating from Wake Island. , USAF

Heavy bomber sorties against an enemy such as China will be absolutely essential to slowly degrade its A2/AD bubble so that less capable and shorter-ranged assets can push close enough towards that country's shores to be useful at all. This will be a very high-stakes and laborious process during the early days and possibly weeks of a conflict. Bombers will also be critical when it comes to taking on China's growing fleet of advanced warships that will stand between U.S. territory and targets in and around the Chinese mainland. 

As a conflict carries on, stealthy B-2 bombers and penetrating tactical airpower will be essential to making major progress in an air war against China via their ability to make the necessary volume of direct attacks required to prosecute such a conflict. There is an absurd notion that standoff weapons alone can win a war against a peer state, even a relatively limited one. This is impossible as we are talking about target sets that number in the tens of thousands or more. 

There will not be enough highly expensive standoff weapons, such as cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons, to come even near to satisfying these requirements. As such, those standoff weapons will be used to break down the enemy's defenses and to strike strategic sensors and nerve centers, in order to blind the enemy and negate force-multiplying capabilities and some key kinetic ones, as well. In effect, this will open the door to broader follow-on strikes made by platforms that can get close enough to their targets to be employed en masse. 

A Navy MH-60S flies along Wake Island's narrow coast, with one of its historical gun emplacements visible. , USN

Of course, even with Wake Island, any operation like this will rely very heavily on America's rapidly aging aerial refueling tanker fleet. This includes refueling the bombers, yes, but especially when it comes to short-ranged tactical airpower once they can get close enough to their targets to be relevant in a peer state conflict in the Pacific at all. 

Remember, an F-35A has a combat radius of around 650 miles, and this is generous compared to most fighter designs. This means a tanker will be at risk within 650 miles of the aircraft's target area when making a direct attack. It is roughly 3,000 miles from Wake Island to Chinese shores. So, you can see just how heavily the tanker fleet will be taxed to sustain even a limited tanker bridge for tactical aircraft to be useful along the leading edge of such a conflict. We have talked about these issues in depth many times before, which you can read about here, here, and here

F-22s over Wake Island—America's massive investment in short-range tactical airpower is ill-suited for the Pacific Theater, making Wake Island an absolutely key component of the 'tanker bridge' that will be required to shuttle fighters like the F-22 over thousands of miles to the front lines of a peer state conflict in Asia. , USAF

This brings us back to just how important Wake Island is. America's tankers and fighters would be pushed back to Hawaii, positioned 2,300 miles from Wake Island, or even Alaska, if it were not for the island outpost, at least initially, during a major conflict. Midway, which sits 1,200 miles to the east of Wake Island, is another option, but it has limited capacity and a shorter runway. So, the idea is that Wake Island would be packed with aircraft moving to and fro across the Pacific during such a major crisis, at least until the enemy's A2/AD bubble can be degraded significantly and austere airfields farther east can be developed and activated. Even then, those forward bases would have limited capacity for prolonged operations and would be more vulnerable to enemy attacks. 

With all this in mind, the upgrades to Wake Island are absolutely necessary and couldn't have come soon enough. 

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