Exposed by Michael: Climate Threat to Warplanes at Coastal Bases

When Hurricane Michael wrecked much of Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla., last week, the storm exposed a significant military vulnerability. The base’s F-22 stealth fighter jets may be unmatched in the skies, but they were all but defenseless on the ground, as the powerful storm ripped apart hangars, flooded buildings and scattered debris.

Most of Tyndall’s 55 F-22s were flown away to safety before the storm hit, but 17 of the aircraft had been grounded for maintenance and could not be made airworthy in time. Those jets, worth about $5.8 billion — more than three times what it would cost to rebuild the entire base from scratch — had to be left behind, and many were damaged.

The Air Force played down the harm this week, saying that all the aircraft could be repaired. But the military has more than a dozen air bases right on the coast in storm-prone southern states, where scientists predict that hurricanes will grow more intense and more frequent because of global warming. Michael’s devastation of Tyndall raises question about how well the bases are defended against the elements.

“This threat is not new to the military — they’ve been talking about climate change for decades — and they generally learn from the latest storm,” said Lt. Gen. Arlen D. Jameson, who is retired from the Air Force and was a former deputy commander of the United States Strategic Command. “The problem is, the lessons learned going forward may be almost too painful to wait for the next lesson.”

Several factors conspired to put a tenth of the nation’s F-22 fleet at risk in Hurricane Michael. The sophisticated jets are notoriously temperamental, and at any given time, only about half the them are mission-ready, according to a recent Air Force report. The storm appeared and developed swiftly, giving maintenance crews only a few days’ warning to get as many jets airworthy as they could. And though the 17 F-22s left behind were put in hangars built to weather tropical storms, the buildings were no match for a Category 4 monster whose winds were clocked at 130 miles an hour before they broke the base’s wind gauge.

Hurricanes have been pummeling air bases since the days when the damage was measured in blimps. Hurricane Hugo ripped through Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in 1989; Hurricane Andrew all but destroyed Homestead Air Force Base near Miami in 1992; and flooding from Hurricane Katrina caused nearly $1 billion in damage at Keesler Air Force Base on the Mississippi coast. Naval air stations and other bases have also suffered extensive flooding and other storm damage.

With more than a dozen Air Force, Navy and Marine airfields dotting the coast from Texas to Virginia, military leaders know that another disaster is only a matter of time, General Jameson said, but they may run into trouble addressing the growing threat by name because of President Trump’s outspoken skepticism about climate change.

“Leaders have to walk on eggshells with the administration about what they say,” the general said. “They have to frame it in terms of resiliency and preparedness.”

Whatever words are used, there is no cheap or easy way to safeguard aircraft from storms like Michael. Fleets of fighters cannot simply be relocated permanently to inland bases, experts say, because vast, empty training areas are needed where pilots can safely fire missiles and shoot down target drones. Most of those areas are over the ocean.

For decades, the military’s response to impending storms has been to evacuate what it could and rebuild the rest. But it is hard to shrug off the cost of repairing or replacing storm-damaged weapons systems when jet fighters cost $339 million apiece.

“Bases have been run over repeatedly by storms, and I think the military thought, to some extent, it was a cost of doing business,” said Rear Adm. David W. Titley, retired, a former chief operating officer of NOAA who now runs the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University. “The question is whether that will now change,” he said.

Repeated destructive hurricanes in the last 20 years have spurred the military to create what he called an “exquisite bureaucracy” of task forces, road maps and public assurances about actions it is taking toward climate, but he said that little has actually changed.

“Tyndall is going to get whacked again sooner or later,” the admiral said. “But how often? That’s the crux. If the damage becomes more frequent, the military will have to adapt and invest.”

Tyndall is now a blank slate that should be rebuilt to anticipate an even worse storm, Admiral Titley said.

An Air Force spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, said that these days, when buildings are put up or renovated at bases along the coast, they are designed to withstand storms and flooding. She said common-sense precautions were also being taken, like relocating generators out of floodable basements. But hardening coastal bases to cope with much stronger winds and higher surges would be costly and probably take years.

The Air Force has a base that can serve as a model: Andersen Air Force Base, in Typhoon Alley on the Pacific island of Guam.

The base was destroyed by the ferocious winds of Typhoon Karen in 1962, which exceeded 175 miles an hour, and it has been hit by a succession of powerful storms since then. Andersen’s location makes it difficult to move the base’s stealth bombers, drones and other aircraft quickly out of an approaching storm’s path, so the base’s hangars have been hardened with steel and concrete to be exceptionally storm-resistant; some are designed to withstand winds of 195 m.p.h.

Building that way is very pricey, even by Defense Department standards. A storm-rated hangar now under construction at Andersen is expected to cost $64 million. A larger hangar recently completed at Naval Air Station Jacksonville recently cost $123 million, and it is only rated to resist 120 m.p.h. winds. Such projects also take years to design, bid and erect. In the meantime, irreplaceable stealth fighters remain at risk.

Within hours after Hurricane Michael had moved on from Tyndall, the Air Force had cleared a runway and begun flying in heavy equipment, temporary tent housing and a mobile hospital to support rebuilding. But the base’s 33 airworthy F-22s have stayed away. They waited out the storm at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and have now been temporarily reassigned to Langley Air Force Base outside Newport News, Va.

Langley was chosen because other F-22s are based there, and equipment and maintenance crews could be shared. But the base, on a flood-prone coastal peninsula, is no safe haven. Most recently, Hurricane Isabel caused $146 million in damage at the base. At least 13 grounded stealth fighters rode out Isabel crammed into a single hangar that was rated to withstand a Category 2 hurricane. The hangar held, but it may not the next time.

“Langley should be worried, a lot of bases should,” said John Conger, who oversaw environmental policy for the Defense Department during the Obama administration and now directs the Center for Climate and Security. “There are plenty of other bases where the consequences of a direct hit are just huge.”

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