Last month, five of the most advanced combat aircraft in the world touched down for the first time at Tyndall Air Force Base in northwest Florida.
The arrival of the F-35A Lightning II fighter jets — which can break the sound barrier with speeds of 1,200 mph — marked the start of a new chapter for Tyndall, which was flattened five years ago by Hurricane Michael, a ferocious Category 5 storm.
It was also a significant milestone for the Defense Department, and perhaps a sign of things to come. The Pentagon is investing at least $5 billion to rebuild and harden Tyndall against hurricanes, one step in a broader mission to better prepare U.S. military facilities for climate disasters.
“You can’t train for combined operations with allies and partners if the training facilities are flooded,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said last month at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which itself was badly damaged by an extreme rain event in early July.
Similarly, “You can’t run an installation without water because you’re in a drought,” she added, “and you can’t adequately prepare for future threats if you’re occupied with urgent crises.”
Yet even as Pentagon officials celebrate Tyndall’s recovery, the threat of climate change continues to grow. Experts warn that hundreds of bases around the world are experiencing global warming impacts at a faster pace than the Defense Department can effectively respond to them.
“Even with aggressive international and whole-of-government action to mitigate future climate change, many effects to the physical environment are unavoidable and will continue to shape our security environment,” DOD said it its 2021 Climate Risk Analysis.
According to a more recent Congressional Research Service report, more than 1,700 military installations worldwide “are in coastal areas and have been or may be affected by sea-level rise or extreme weather events.”
Officials acknowledge that in recent years, thousands of American troops have lost critical training time to fight floods, wildfires and other disasters, often on their very training grounds. And for every base damaged or destroyed by a climate disaster, another installation must shoulder its lost mission capacity.
Rising from the rubble
When Michael roared ashore Oct. 10, 2018, nearly 500 of Tyndall’s buildings, some dating to the 1950s, were destroyed or damaged.
Its resident squadron of earlier-generation F-22 fighters decamped to Eglin Air Force Base 80 miles west along the panhandle as a hobbled Tyndall stared down an uncertain future. Most eventually relocated to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va.
Pentagon officials, however, looked upon a destroyed Tyndall and saw an opportunity.
Rather than simply rebuild the base, the Air Force would reenvision Tyndall and give it a new purpose and a higher-profile mission. It would become what the Pentagon calls the “installation of the future.” So confident is the Air Force in the rebuilt and storm-fortified base that by 2028 it will host three full combat-ready squadrons of F-35s — more than 70 planes — at a cost of $80 million apiece.
“An active Air Force Base is a weapons platform,” Don Arias, a spokesperson for the Tyndall-rebuild effort, said in a telephone interview last week. “Everything we’re doing here is to support those aircraft that are coming in.”
The work includes a more-than-half-billion-dollar rebuild and fortification of Tyndall’s primary flight line, known as Zone 1, which Arias called “the big enchilada.”
While new construction projects extend across the base — from dorms to administrative offices — the flight line is at the heart of Tyndall’s new mission to launch fighter squadrons in the face of a hostile attack or incursion into U.S. airspace. The flight line’s new buildings, constructed of reinforced steel with concrete masonry, include three F-35 hangars and a state-of-the-art maintenance complex that can withstand 170-mph winds.
All buildings are built on foundations well above base-flood elevation, or the projected floodwater level during a 100-year storm, and the F-35s’ parking aprons and adjacent taxiways are drained by a 2,700-linear-foot concrete box culvert that will route stormwater to treatment basins and then the ocean.
“This is all new infrastructure, built from the ground up,” Mike Dwyer, deputy chief of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Natural Disaster Recovery Division, said in a phone interview. “Bottom line is these structures are built like M-1 battle tanks.
Other bases at risk
Yet Tyndall — while a model for 21st-century storm defense and resilience — still remains exposed to megastorms. It’s also one of several major active-duty military bases on the Gulf Coast, a region that’s already experiencing some of the most visible effects of climate change.
Eglin near Destin, Fla., is as vulnerable to storms and rising seas as Tyndall. So is MacDill Air Force Base — the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and 927th Air Refueling Wing. MacDill sits at the tip of a peninsula jutting into Tampa Bay. NOAA predicts the base, which sits 14 feet above sea level, will lose considerable land area to sea levels estimated to rise between 11 inches and 2.5 feet by 2050.
Ilka Cole, a spokesperson at Eglin, said all new construction at the base is built to the latest Florida building codes, which require much higher wind-protection standards. Eglin is also subject to a “military installation resilience review” whose recommendations will inform all future building and infrastructure planning.
Naval Air Station Pensacola, the Navy’s primary flight school and home of the Blue Angels demonstration squadron, is also at risk. It sustained a half-billion dollars in damage from Hurricane Sally, a Category 2 storm, in 2020. Last month, the Navy began a $6.4 million repair of a storm-damaged hanger used by the Blue Angels amid concern the squadron could relocate to another base.
And Keesler Air Force Base in low-lying Biloxi, Miss., sustained nearly $1 billion in damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 before being rebuilt.
On a post-storm visit to NAS Pensacola base in 2021, Hicks noted that Sally showed “firsthand how the effects of climate change are playing out at an operational and installation level” — a theme she revisited last month at West Point.
“In viewing the devastation, I was struck by how much our readiness depends on how well we adapt our plans, our missions and our budget to ensure resiliency of our facilities, installations and capabilities,” she said.
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Keiley, a spokesperson for the Navy, said in an email that all base designs — whether on the Gulf Coast or other locations, including major warship ports on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts — take “into consideration climate-related vulnerabilities in installation master planning, management of natural resources, design and construction standards.”
For example, as part of its Typhoon Mawar recovery efforts at Naval Base Guam in the Pacific Islands, officials are “planning enhanced repairs to power generation, hardening of power distribution and water systems as well as fortification of housing,” he said.
127,000 square miles of open sky
Even with the growing climate risk, the Defense Department remains committed to keeping critical assets on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast.
The reason, officials say, is air space — more than 127,000 square miles of open sky from the panhandle to Key West that’s designated for military use, including for supersonic air combat training, air-to-air missile testing and drone targeting.
“We don’t have to transit [Federal Aviation Administration] airspace to get out there. We can launch armed aircraft right from the base,” Arias said.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Why are we rebuilding at Tyndall?’” Lt. Col. Michael Powell, commander of the reactivated 95th Fighter Squadron, said in a recent video release. “A large part of the reason is that air space is so perfect and pristine for high-end training.
“That is a huge deal in terms of the nation’s calling to be able to go and deploy wherever. We’re able to deploy to get to wherever we need to deter the adversary.”