October 04, 2020

Naval Bases from Space - Hampton Roads

Reader FXBDM has suggested that a look at naval bases from space would be a good series, and if I am to do that, it makes sense to start with Hampton Roads, the spiritual heart of the United States Navy. Hampton Roads is a roadstead, or sheltered body of water where ships can lay safely at anchor, at the junction of the James and Elizabeth Rivers, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It's surrounded by a number of facilities, most but not all naval. As I don't feel like making sure I've complied with Google's terms, I'll let you follow along on your own. But to make things easy, here's a map I've made with all the points under discussion marked.

We'll start with Naval Station Norfolk, the home of the Atlantic Fleet. It's located on the southwestern edge of the Roads, and on the western edge are the piers where the fleet is usually tied up. At the time of writing,1 we have carrier Harry S Truman at Pier 14 and Dwight D Eisnehower at Pier 12, along with hospital ship Comfort. Tied up to Pier 10 is Wasp class LHD Bataan, while Pier 9 has a pair of what I believe are Henry J. Kaiser class oilers, and a Lewis and Clarke class cargo ship is at Pier 8. Pier 7 has a Burke on the north side and a Ticonderoga on the south side, while Pier 4 has two Burkes and a Tico. Telling them apart is fairly easy. Ticos are slightly longer and thinner, and they have two guns, a helipad that isn't all the way aft, and a breastwork on the bow that produces a slight indentation in their profile around the forward VERTREP box. The Burkes at Pier 4 are also useful for spotting differences within the type. The one on the left is a Flight IIA ship, with the extended aft superstructure for the hangar, while the one on the right is Flight I/II, with the aft superstructure to starboard cut away almost to the VLS nest. Our tour of the Naval Station's piers is rounded out with Pier 3, showing a trio of submarines. The only one of these that is identifiable is the eastern one on the south side of the pier, which shows diving planes on the sail, characteristic of the early (non-688I) Los Angeles class submarines. All later US submarines have had their forward planes in the hull, where they can retract for under-ice operations.

Naval Station Norfolk is also home to Chambers Field, a major logistics hub for the Atlantic Fleet, and home to the Atlantic E-2 Hawkeye, C-2 Greyhound, MH-60S Knighthawk and MH-53E Sea Dragon forces. The Hawkeyes and Greyhounds can be seen on the ramp directly to the north of the runway, and can easily be distinguished by the lack of radome on the Greyhounds. The helicopters are further north. To the north is a ramp with some of the MH-53E minesweeping helicopters. There's another ramp to the east, which has both MH-53Es and MH-60s, while the ramp to the northwest has more MH-60s and MV-22s. Given the age of the image, they have to be USMC aircraft, but I'm not sure what they're doing there.

Directly north of Chambers Field is Fort Monroe, intended to defend the Hampton Roads area against attack from the sea, and an active Army post until 2011. Northwest of Fort Monroe and still active is Langley Air Force Base, home to a large portion of the F-22 Raptor force. Unfortunately for us, the USAF installed shelters for the jets in early 2017, so we can't see them sitting on the ramp. For reasons unknown to mortal man, it was combined in 2010 with Fort Eustis, an Army base well to the northwest. Near Fort Eustis is the James River Reserve Fleet, a few old merchant ships retained in case the US should need them to move military equipment overseas.

Much closer to Fort Eustis than Langley AFB is Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, on the York River to the north. It is responsible for loading and unloading weapons to the vessels of the Atlantic Fleet, as magazines for missiles and bombs tend to consume a lot of space, which is in short supply in Norfolk. Currently, an LSD is being serviced by the station, which also includes the Cheatham Annex, which handles non-explosive cargo and is the homeport to cable repair ship Zeus, currently in port.

The last facility we want to look at on the north side of Hampton Roads isn't owned by the government at all. It's Newport News Shipbuilding, builder of America's aircraft carriers and half of her submarines. At the northern end of the yard is the drydock where new CVNs are built, occupied at the time the image was taken by the John F Kennedy, since launched. Further south is the drydock used for refueling carriers, filled by George Washington. Then comes what I believe is the assembly building for submarines, which are launched using the nearby floating drydock. South of that are more submarines, probably under overhaul, and at the very south end of the facility is Enterprise, waiting to be scrapped.

Newport News Shipbuilding is the only facility in the Hampton Roads area that currently builds ships from scratch, but there are a number of ship repair and maintenance facilities we can see if we follow the Elizabeth River south from the Naval Station towards Central Norfolk. These vary greatly in size and sophistication, from simple piers with shop facilities that will do things like painting to huge industrial operations with massive drydocks. An example of the former is the first one we come across, Marine Hydraulics, who have a pair of Burkes and a pair of LSDs tied up at their pier. On the other side of the river is one part of NASSCO Norfolk, a similar facility playing host to an auxiliary I can't identify and three Ro-Ro ships. Slightly further upriver is the battleship Wisconsin, preserved as part of the Nauticus museum. Southeast of Wisconsin, the Elizabeth river splits, and on the point of the split is the other half of NASSCO, this one slightly more sophisticated. It has a floating drydock, currently carrying a Burke, as well as another Burke and a San Antonio class LPD tied up. Directly to the south of NASSCO is BAE, the largest private yard in this area. It has two floating drydocks, with a Burke and a Tico, and the piers have two more ships of each type, along with a pair of LPDs. A few minor yards are along the banks of the northern branch of the Elizabeth river. A floating drydock holds a JHSV/EFT, while a Cyclone class patrol craft is tied up nearby. Further west, the Norfolk Barge yard has cable repair ship Zeus,2 as well as a pair of LCUs.

South of the BAE yard and on the west side of the river is the oldest of the installations we'll look at today, Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Shipbuilding began here in 1767, and it was first taken over by the US Navy in 1794. The frigate Cheaseapeake was built at this yard, one of the original six frigates, and Drydock One, the first drydock in the western hemisphere, opened here in 1833, and it remains in use today. The yard was briefly taken over by the Confederacy, and it was here that the steam frigate Merrimack was converted into the ironclad CSS Virginia. After WWII, ship construction here ceased, but today it is one of the few yards specializing in the maintenance of nuclear-powered vessels. Two submarines can be seen in drydock at the north end of the yard, and a third is pierside just north of drydocked carrier George H W Bush.

The last stops on our tour are also owned by the Navy. The first is Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, just to the west of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.3 It was set up during WWII to train the crews of the massive flotilla of landing craft built to deliver Allied troops to beaches worldwide. Today, it remains the main operating and training area for the Atlantic Fleet's amphibious forces, and a ramp with LCACs parked on it is just to the east of the mouth of Little Creek itself. The base was merged with the Army's Fort Story, originally established in 1914 to guard the entrance of the Chesapeake, and which now serves as a training area.

Our final destination is of a similar vintage. NAS Oceana was built to help train naval aircrews during WWII, and now serves as the main base for the Atlantic Fleet's Super Hornet squadrons. The ramps are full of them, although the north end of the west ramp has a few oddities. There is a C-40 (Navy version of the 737), a few Hornets in a rather unusual paint scheme (adversary aircraft painted in Russian colors) and 9 aircraft that are definitely not Super Hornets. I know what they are and why they're there, but I'm curious to see who else can figure it out.

So that wraps up our tour of the naval/military facilities around Hampton Roads. I suspect our next stop will be San Diego, which fulfills more or less the same role for the Pacific Fleet.

1 Google Earth shows the imagery of the area is a mix of 4/21/19 (the piers and NSN) and 5/2/18 (pretty much everywhere else). When Google updates their imagery (hasn't happened by the 2021 overhaul), you'll need to make sure you're using Google Earth's historic imagery function to see the ships I talk about.

2 Yes, we already saw her up at Yorktown, but the images were taken on different days. The bow sheaves for the cables are very distinctive.

3 It's worth pointing out that a lot of the water crossings in the area are tunnels or bridge-tunnels because the Navy wanted to be very sure that sabotage of a bridge couldn't block the channel and bottle up the Atlantic Fleet.


  1. October 04, 2020AlexT said...

    Thanks, really nice tour! Makes me wonder though, how wise is it to build what seem like a lot of important objectives in such close proximity?

    Rafales for carrier training?

  2. October 04, 2020Matt said...

    I love maps, and seeing how close everything is to every other place in this area.

    You did leave out one place that I noticed, though, but maybe it's not on Google Maps. Dam Neck is a bit SE of Oceana along the coast, and worth mentioning, as it's the East Coast home of SEALs, as well as DEVGRU, or whatever they're calling themselves this week.

    Given the SEALs seeming love for publicity, I'm sure one of them would have appeared on here sooner or later to mention this as well...

    Looking forward to other Navy towns, like Dago, Pearl or Bremerton.

  3. October 04, 2020bean said...

    Makes me wonder though, how wise is it to build what seem like a lot of important objectives in such close proximity?

    Lower transport costs, mostly from back in the days when that was really important. Also, there used to be a lot more dispersion of this stuff. It's just largely closed now.

    Rafales for carrier training?

    Bingo. CDG was in the yard for a year or more at the time. I actually found a news article on their arrival.

    You did leave out one place that I noticed, though, but maybe it’s not on Google Maps. Dam Neck is a bit SE of Oceana along the coast, and worth mentioning, as it’s the East Coast home of SEALs, as well as DEVGRU, or whatever they’re calling themselves this week.

    I forgot. It's part of Oceana, so I missed it when checking the lists, and don't pay enough attention to SEALs to notice the oversight.

    Given the SEALs seeming love for publicity, I’m sure one of them would have appeared on here sooner or later to mention this as well...

    Yeah. I do my part to compensate by not talking about them.

  4. October 04, 2020echo said...

    AlexT: Was going to say I'd love to see the soviet nuclear targeting map of this area.
    I'd assumed it wasn't dispersed more during the Cold War because of expense and lack of other suitable locations, but you say it was and was de-dispersed after '91?

  5. October 04, 2020bean said...

    Sort of. The full extent of BRAC is complicated, but there were a lot of bases which got closed during the 90s and 00s. On the East Coast, I'd point to the Philadelphia and Charleston shipyards, both of which were home to a number of ships, too.

  6. October 05, 2020AlexT said...

    Are facilities used for maintenance similar enough to those for actual shipbuilding, that it's pointless to have dedicated repair yards? I imagine drydocks would be mandatory for both, big enough to house the ship being repaired, but how about the rest of the machinery?

    If repair-only is much cheaper, that would be a reason to disperse repair bases away from the shipyards (and closer to the front). But if the investment is similar, might as well pay a little extra and get the full shipbuilding package (and put it someplace as safe as possible).

  7. October 05, 2020bean said...

    Newport News is the only newbuild yard in the area. In theory, you could disperse repair yards more, but there are several reasons not to. One is that you get a critical mass of skills, which makes it easier to find employees. Another is retention. The general cycle (ideal) for a warship is 6 months in the yard, 6 months working up, 6 months deployed. The crew's families will generally be wherever their homeport is, so you'd want to do maintenance in that area and let them go home at night. This isn't always possible (the only CVN-capable drydock on the west coast is in Puget Sound, and there are several carriers based in San Diego) but when it is, it makes sense to do maintenance close to home. The newbuild yards are better dispersed, most notably Bath and Pascagoula, and I'd guess they can do refits to, they just generally don't.

  8. October 05, 2020FXBDM said...

    Thanks for the mention and the article! Shame that embedded pictures would violate terms, but following along on a split screen works too!

  9. October 05, 2020Ian Argent said...

    Ex-Soviet overhead imagery analysts are having Such A Moment right now : )

  10. October 05, 2020bean said...

    Shame that embedded pictures would violate terms, but following along on a split screen works too!

    It's not that they'd necessarily violate terms. I checked what I'd need to do, and said "this is more work than I'm willing to put in", particularly given how many pictures I'd need. Illustrations are enough of a pain already.


    Are they people who worked for the Soviets, or people who analyzed Soviet imagery?

  11. October 07, 2020Ian Argent said...

    @Bean: yes! (I meant the ones who worked in the former USSR, but the alternative interpretation is valid as well.)

  12. October 08, 2020Chuck said...

    Growing up in the Hampton Roads area this post was a welcome blast of nostalgia. Couple random memories and bits:

    As a kid I'd commute with my mother to work down the colonial parkway, right by the pier of the Naval Weapons Station. It was a treat to try and spot what was docked there. Mostly it would be cruisers, destroyers, and cargo ships, with the odd amphibious assault ship thrown in. The real treat, of course, was the rare occasion that one of the battleships would be docked. Besides being really long, one of the things I always noticed about the battleships was how low they were, with the lower parts of the deck being hardly visible over the pier (which isn't very high). I've been meaning to ask you about this Bean, how does the freeboard of a BB compare to a modern ship?

    It's difficult to overstate how much the area is a network of military bases. A few more bean didn't mention: Craney island (a naval support facility), the Portsmouth Coast Guard base & the CG training facility on the York River, the (recently decommissioned) DFSP Yorktown, and of course Camp Perry which is a perfectly normal naval support facility please move along.

    @echo At about 10 miles north, we always figured we were well in target zone and would suck up a stray MIRV warhead in the event of nuclear war. (Makes prepping for the apocalypse a cinch: just get light refreshments, since our part was going to be like an hour long.)

  13. October 08, 2020Chuck said...

    Also wanted to mention how much bigger the ghost fleet was back then. There were close to a hundred vessels, mostly old liberty ships. Over the years the most recognizable was probably the Sturgis, a liberty ship turned mobile reactor, which was kept moored off by itself away from other ships. (She wasn't always lonely, for a brief periods she was kept company by the NS Savannah and then the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg in turn)

  14. November 19, 2020Alex said...

    Farther south in Chesapeake, there is also Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress, and the Naval Consolidated Brig Cheseapeake.

    There are normally a couple LSDs tied up at Little Creek - piers look unusually empty in these pictures. I'm curious what some of the other vessels in Little Creek are - I recognize an EPF, but not sure what most of the others are.

  15. November 19, 2020bean said...

    I'm not sure. Probably just yard craft or something. I don't see any piers at Little Creek that look big enough for an LSD. Where do they normally tie up?

  16. November 20, 2020Alex said...

    Here is LSD-46 (USS Tortuga): https://earth.google.com/web/search/Little+Creek,+Virginia+Beach,+VA/@36.91590638,-76.17220631,0.95199568a,231.97884395d,35y,45.6543256h,59.11133405t,360r/data=CigiJgokCf0PR6jp8jZAEfgPR6jp8jbAGX5yofY35kNAIVvVOki9bFDA

  17. November 20, 2020Alex said...

    Here's a Markdown link: USS Tortuga at JEB Little Creek

  18. November 20, 2020bean said...

    Ah. If I'd had to guess, that would have been where I'd have picked, but it looked a bit too much like the edge of a channel and not enough like a pier.

  19. November 20, 2020Alex said...

    The piers on the western side of the harbor are also big enough. You can't pull up historical images on the web app, but if you look at the images from April 2013 on Google Earth Pro you can see two LSDs tied up at piers along Whidbey Island road, and another two alongside Signal Point Road.

    If you fly into ORF, one of the approaches flies right over JEB Little Creek, so you'll frequently get a very brief close-up view of the LSDs as you go by.

  20. May 16, 2023Ian Argent said...

    As of this writing, the Naval Station Norfolk imagery still has the indicated ships, but everything in the Chambers Field entry and the NWS Yorktown is all but gone. Drydock 12 at Newport News Shipbuilding still have a carrier under construction, I assume John F Kennedy still.

    Looks like most of the rest, but not all, the overhead imagery is still as described

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

Leave a comment

All comments are reviewed before being displayed.

Name (required):

E-mail (required, will not be published):


You can use Markdown in comments!

Enter value: Captcha