Catalina Island's Famous Cliffside Airport To Get Rebuilt In Marine Training Exercise

It's a great training opportunity since rapidly building air bases in hard to access areas is becoming a cornerstone of U.S. military doctrine.

Google Earth

The U.S. military as a whole is becoming increasingly worried about its ability, or lack thereof, to rapidly deploy large forces into a theater of operations under the threat of attack from a near-peer opponent during potential high-end conflicts. Whether or not American troops have the capacity and know-how to either quickly repair damaged airfields or build new ones entirely is among the most pressing concerns. Starting at the end of 2018, a group of Marines will get important real-world experience that could help inform future concepts of operation as they work to rebuild a remote civilian runway on an island off the coast of California.

Beginning on Dec. 9, 2018, the Catalina Airport, which is situated on top of a peak on Santa Catalina Island, will close its runway for a major overhaul. Marine Wing Support Squadron Three Seven Three (MWSS-373) will subsequently lead a force of approximately 100 Marines from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) who will support the project. The non-profit Catalina Island Conservancy, which now owns the airport, expects the $5 million upgrade project to finish up by April 2019.

“The repair of the Conservancy's Airport in the Sky runway project offers an incredible training opportunity to the Marines,” U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Buchanan, a spokesperson for the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), which controls the 3rd MAW, said in a statement on Oct. 30, 2018. “This challenging project allows Marines to gain valuable experience in repairing damaged runways, and increases our capabilities and readiness to tackle a range of military operations across the globe. It also ensures that the community benefits from a fully operational airport for daily provisions as well as to aid in any potential recovery efforts after natural disasters.”

The Marines are working with the Catalina Island Conservancy through the Department of Defense’s Innovate Readiness Training (IRT) program, which helps coordinate training opportunities that support U.S. communities and promote positive civil-military interactions. The non-profit describes the arrangement as a “win-win partnership … to repair the runway, which is aged and beyond its useful life.”

USMC

Marines from MWSS-373 repair battle damage to Al Taqaddum Air Base in Iraq in 2016.

The Wrigley family of chewing gum fame originally built the airstrip on Catalina Island, which sits less than 50 miles south of Los Angeles in the Pacific Ocean, opening it in 1941 as the Buffalo Springs Airport. In 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces took control of the site in order to support U.S. military activities during World War II. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the progenitor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency, also used the island as a training site.

Civilian commercial operations resumed in the 1950s and the Catalina Island Conservancy bought the airport in 1972, continuing to operate it as a public facility open to private aircraft and charter flights. Situated at the highest point on the island, at an elevation of more than 1,600 feet, it has since gained the nickname “the Airport in the Sky” and a reputation for being a challenging place for pilots to land. Some have even likened it to a mountainside aircraft carrier. Even the roads leading up to it from the populated areas below are especially steep.

The runway drops off steeply at both ends, making it difficult for pilots to see the opposite side when landing and taking off and making the margin for pilot error all but non-existent. The airport's location and altitude mean that aircraft often have to battle downdrafts and turbulence as they come in to land. Heavy rainfall reportedly routinely disturbs the runways asphalt surface, creating potholes, soft spots, and scattering chunks of debris, all of which can pose additional hazards.

This is where the Marines will come in. Starting in December 2018, private contractors will strip the existing asphalt. A temporary runway will allow for limited flights to and from the island in the interim. In January 2019, MWSS-373 and the rest of the force will arrive by helicopter and boat to begin laying down a new, concrete runway. The Marines will establish and operate out of an austere tent camp through the duration of the project, as they would during an actual expeditionary military operation.

Building a runway under rustic conductions will provide an important training opportunity for the Marines by itself. The challenge of getting the necessary equipment and raw materials to the island and up to the where the airport is located, as well as sustaining the operations there for a period of three months or more, only adds to the value. But this is exactly what Marine Wing Support Squadrons train to do.

These units are largely unknown components of all Marine Aircraft Wings that typically provide local defense, communications, medical, mess, and other general ground support to units at their main base of operations. However, they are also prepared to rapidly deploy to assume operations at remote, “bare base” airstrips with limited supporting infrastructure.

In addition, they are equipped and trained to provide a host of important engineering services, including building roads and runways, landing pads for F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, and helicopters, defensive fortifications, and living quarters. These units would also establish vital power, water, and fuel facilities necessary to support operations at these facilities. These are the exact skill sets that will be on put to the test during the repair of Catalina Airport’s runway.

This isn't the first time the Marines have taken part in an exercise like this, but these sorts of civilian-military partnerships may become more valuable as the U.S. military as a whole shifts its primary focus to preparing for potential conflicts with “great power” adversaries, such as Russia or China. These are also exactly the kind of capabilities the U.S. military needs to hone if it wants to ensure its ability to conduct air operations during a major crisis, as we at The War Zone have explored in depth in the past. Enemy strikes will have very likely rendered established bases and known secondary dispersal sites unusable for at least some period of time in the opening phases of any high-intensity conflict.

How useful the exercise on Catalina Island is or isn’t, and what best practices and potential pitfalls the service can glean from rebuilding the runway, will almost certainly be of interest to other U.S .military services, too. The Air Force is especially eager to revitalize its own similar expeditionary air base units and could be interested in growing its own use of similar civil-military partnerships in the future.

“Our collaboration with the U.S. Marines is a rare opportunity to maintain the proud history we share on Catalina,” Tony Budrovich, Catalina Island Conservancy’s President and CEO, said in a statement on Oct. 30, 2018. “We invite Island residents and visitors to come to the airport during construction to observe this exceptional military exercise and enjoy the beauty and the open spaces of Catalina’s interior.”

The exercise, and future ones just like, may also become an increasingly important foundation for America's air combat doctrine in the coming years.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com