The effort to rebuild hurricane-devastated Tyndall Air Force Base will be daunting and unprecedented.
Virtually all of the Florida base’s roughly 480 buildings sustained at least some damage — and about 300 of them are beyond saving and must be demolished.
When all is said and done, perhaps six or seven years after Hurricane Michael slammed into the base Oct. 10, 2018, the Air Force will likely have spent $4.25 billion to resurrect Tyndall — while still carrying on some of the service’s most crucial missions, such as F-22 training.
To get the job done, the Air Force is going to need some creative ideas, said Brig. Gen. Patrice Melancon, executive director of the Tyndall Program Management Office supervising the reconstruction effort, in a June 27 interview.
“Let’s face it, we’re basically building an entire base,” she said. “We’re not just going to build the Tyndall that we had, we’re going to build the base that we need.”
That’s why last week, AFWERX — an organization set up in 2017 by former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to find rapid, innovative solutions to the service’s challenges — brought in about 55 people for a two-day workshop on how to rebuild Tyndall. The June 25-26 conference included representatives and experts from the Air Force, the Army Corps of Engineers — which will oversee most of the base’s military construction — industry, and local Florida communities around Tyndall.
“The point of it was to brainstorm the art of the possible for the rebuild,” Melancon said. “All of this is being done in a very compressed timeline, and so we’re looking at ways that we can accelerate all of the phases of this.”
Melancon’s estimate of the costs of rebuilding Tyndall are higher than the Air Force’s estimate in February, when representatives told industry and community representatives that the service planned to spend about $3 billion.
The conference hit on several topic areas, such as “smart” infrastructure that uses sensors and other technology to help track buildings’ maintenance needs, cybersecurity to protect data collected by that technology, how to cut construction costs and get it done quicker, and how to make utilities more “resilient,” so the base can maintain power and water access to critical facilities, even during and after a severe storm.
“What might it take to put a microgrid at Tyndall?” she said. “That way, if the power goes down outside the base, we have a way to be self-sufficient for our mission-critical buildings. That, to me, was pretty exciting.”
One of the most intriguing ideas presented at the conference was a large-scale 3D printing machine, Melancon said. It could allow the Air Force to rapidly construct concrete walls for guard shacks, homes or other structures.
Such a machine also could, theoretically, help speed up the process of standing up forward-deployed bases overseas, she said. But more research needs to be done to see if that technology is “ready for prime time.”
“I’m looking to see how we can do some prototyping here at Tyndall that can maybe then be rolled out to the rest of the Air Force,” Melancon said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t be able to figure out how to take what we’re doing here, and use that to impact the rest of the Air Force as they modernize their infrastructure.”
The Air Force is considering “frictionless,” or fast pass-type lanes, at base gates, similar to what the Army has tried at Fort Belvoir. Instead of manning each gate with two or three security forces, she said, a base could have an unmanned lane where people would swipe their ID card and possibly enter a thumbprint to gain access.
Not only could this speed up the entry process, she said, it could help alleviate some of the Air Force’s manning challenges.
“There are some ways that we can make that pretty darn secure, but it’s unmanned,” Melancon said. “This is technology that’s already in the commercial space, so we just need to leverage it for our benefits.”
Tyndall is “sprinting” to be ready to accept its first F-35 fighters in October 2023. The base won’t be completely finished with repairs and construction by then, she said, but they’re planning to have the buildings and facilities critical for the F-35 mission done by then.
Another complicating factor: Tyndall isn’t the only organization trying to rebuild in the area.
“A lot of downtown, a lot of the surrounding community is having to rebuild,” Melancon. “Frankly, we’re going to run out of labor and materials, so we’re just not sure what that’s going to look like when we actually start doing the rebuild, in terms of potential cost escalation.”
About 49 critical buildings were only mildly damaged, so the Air Force got those back up and operational quickly, Melancon said. So far, the Air Force has spent about $400 million to repair Tyndall.
But to varying degrees, the damage was widespread.
“I don’t know that there was any building that didn’t have any damage at all,” Melancon said.
No contracts were awarded during this event, Melancon said. But sometime this fall, possibly in October, AFWERX will have a pitch day during which contracts could be awarded on the spot.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.