November 18, 2020

Naval Bases from Space - San Diego

Continuing our series that started with Hampton Roads, it's time to take a look at San Diego through the lens of Google Maps. While it's position with respect to the Pacific Fleet isn't quite as overwhelming as Hampton Roads is for the Atlantic Fleet, San Diego is still home to a huge number of ships and aircraft. It's also close to my heart, as it was where I first went to sea. You can follow along with the Google Map I created for this post here.

The core of this facility is Naval Base San Diego, on San Diego Bay south of downtown. This is a surprisingly recent base, being established thanks to the efforts of the San Diego community in the aftermath of WWI. Before that, the majority of the Pacific Fleet was based either in San Francisco Bay or the Los Angeles area. During the interwar years, it was mostly home to destroyers and submarines, but it emerged as the premier West Coast base in the aftermath of WWII. Today, it's the homeport to a significant fraction of Third Fleet's surface warfare and amphibious ships. We'll start at the south end of the piers,1 where we find America (LHA-6, the best of the ships we'll look at today) and Makin Island (LHD-8). 2 Across the pier from Makin Island is a San Antonio class LPD. The next pier north has a wide range of ships. There's Michael Monsoor, the second unit of the Zumwalt class, another LPD and a Ticonderoga.

North of that, there's a wider pier, with prepositioning ship Curtiss on the south side. On the north side are an LCS-2 and an Avenger class minehunter. At this point, the pier line turns to run a bit northwest. The southernmost of these piers houses only a Tico. The next one houses LHD Essex and a Flight I/II Burke on the south side with a third LPD and a Tico on the north. Past that, there's an LSD (south) and an LPD (north). At this point, we seem to be getting into the LCS portion of the base. There's an LCS-2 at the next pier north, and another one on the pier past that, along with two LCS-1s and an LPD. A fourth LCS-2 has the next pier to itself, and we encounter Bonhomme Richard and the penultimate pier of NBSD proper. A fifth LCS-2 shares the northernmost pier with a second Avenger.

Just to the north of NBSD are a trio of shipyards which handle much of the repair work for the Pacific Fleet. The first one we come to is NASSCO, the only remaining yard that actually builds ships (as opposed to boats) on the West Coast. Past that is BAE's yard, followed by Continental Maritime, nestled around the base of the Coronado Bridge. I'm not sure exactly where the boundaries between the three yards are, so we'll take a look at all of the ships there together. The first pier north of the base is an auxiliary of some sort, probably one of MSC's LMSRs, berthed alongside a Tico. Next up are three drydocks, the northernmost of which has a new ship in it, probably a Kanaloa class container ship,3 followed by an empty floating drydock. The next batch of piers has a Tico, then a Flight IIA Burke and an LPD, followed by an LCS-2 in a floating drydock. Then there's another LSD and a second Flight IIA Burke in the other floating drydock. The piers around the Coronado Bridge look pretty empty, with just a Tico just to the north of the bridge.

Across the bay from NBSD is Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. This is most famous as the home of basic SEAL training, on the Pacific side of the base, but it's also home to the Landing Craft Utility (LCUs) of Assault Craft Unit One, as well as the operational West Coast SEAL teams. NAB Coronado also controls the Silver Strand Training Complex at the south end of the bay. This facility was originally home to a giant Wullenweber direction-finding antenna, and the circular outline of the antenna can still be seen. Southwest of Silver Strand is Naval Outlying Landing Field Imperial Beach. While this base is technically not home to any aircraft, the helicopters stationed at NAS North Island often fly out of here, as the base there is often in use by fixed-wing aircraft.

Naval Air Station North Island is located to the north of the city of Coronado. Most of the units based at North Island are helicopter squadrons, with only a few transport squadrons of fixed-wing aircraft. For some reason, the ramps were essentially empty on the day this photo was taken, but other dates (visible in Google Earth) show lots and lots of helicopters. A few fixed-wing aircraft are visible near the ammunition pier at the northwest side of the base, including F/A-18 fuselages, sans wings. I assume these are undergoing maintenance. Besides hosting most of the central logistics functions for the USN's Pacific air units, it's also home to several of the Pacific Fleet's carriers. Visible are the Theodore Roosevelt and the Carl Vinson. They can't reach NBSD proper, thanks to the Coronado Bridge, built in the 60s. Across the bay from these carriers is Midway, and north of her is the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Across the entrance to the Bay is Point Loma, the Navy's last major installation in San Diego. This is primarily a submarine base, with four boats tied up at the southern end of the base. Unfortunately, I can't really determine type from orbit. There's a floating drydock nearby for maintenance work, and a deguassing range to the north of the piers. Point Loma was originally an Army coastal defense installation called Fort Rosecrans, but it was turned over to the Navy after WWII. Unfortunately, the installations don't show up well in the satellite pictures. There's a national cemetery at Point Loma, as well as command functions for sealift and mine warfare.

San Diego survived the downsizing at the end of the Cold War quite well, but there was one major casualty, which we will find if we go north, back into San Diego Bay. Naval Training Center San Diego was one of the USN's recruit training centers from the 1920s until 1997, when all basic training was consolidated at Great Lakes near Chicago. It's been redeveloped by the City of San Diego as Liberty Station, although there's still a unique feature from the Navy days. A "ship" called USS Recruit was constructed on land to give new sailors a chance to practice shipboard life, including formalities, seamanship, and even moving about shipboard, without needing to go to sea. Recruit was commissioned from her construction in 1949 until 1967, when she was decommissioned due to the new computerized ship system's inability to classify her. She was refurbished and recommissioned in 1982, and remained legally a ship until 1997.

But while the Navy may have given up training recruits in San Diego, the Marine Corps hasn't, and just to the west of the old Naval Training Center, and just north of San Diego Airport is Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. MCRD San Diego handles all male recruits west of the Mississippi, and graduates here are known as "Hollywood Marines" by those from the more famous center at Parris Island, South Carolina. Southwest of the airport is Coast Guard Station San Diego, home to a few MH-60 helicopters and a handful of boats. The last military installation in the San Diego area itself is the Naval Medical Center, located near Balboa Park northwest of downtown. This is a major Navy teaching hospital, as well as providing care to the huge naval population around San Diego.

The Marine Corps doesn't just train recruits in the San Diego area. North of the city is Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Mirimar came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s when it became the Navy's premier fighter base on the West Coast and home of the famous TOPGUN school. There, matters rested until the 1993 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, when the Marine Corps Air Stations in El Toro and Tusin, southwest of LA, were closed and their assets moved to Miramar, while the Navy consolidated West Coast fighter operations at Lemoore in northern California, with TOPGUN going to NAS Fallon in Nevada. But the Marines brought with them their tradition of doing airshows, and hold a spectacular one every fall at Miramar. I've been twice, and you should go if you can.

Returning to the satellite images, let's look over the ramp from east to west. On the far eastern end we have some KC-130s, followed by a whole bunch of F/A-18s. There's a few F-16s on the southeast corner of this array, although I'm not sure why. The Pacific AV-8B squadrons (and thus the early F-35B squadrons) are based at MCAS Yuma, not Miramar, so it was an all-Hornet base at the time this picture was taken. Recently, the first F-35Cs have become operational there. Next up are CH-53E Super Stallions, recognizable by their seven-bladed rotors. Lastly, the west end of the ramp is home to MV-22B Ospreys. North of the flightline and across from the golf course is Naval Consolidated Brig, Miramar, the home for all of the DOD's female prisoners as well as some male prisoners.

But the Marines do have another airbase in the area, MCAS Camp Pendleton. As the name suggests, this is part of Camp Pendleton, the biggest Marine base on the West Coast and home to the 1st Marine Division and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. As such, it's a rather sprawling affair, with broad clusters in the north and south. Most of the base is not particularly interesting to look at from space, so I won't go any further for the moment. Worth some time are the LCACs of Assault Craft Unit Five, sandwhiched between I-5 and the coast, and the MCAS itself. This is home to UH-1Y and AH-1Z units, and the aircraft themselves are intermixed on the ramp, with a few MV-22s to keep them company. They're hard to tell apart from above, but the AH-1Z is considerably slimmer than the UH-1Y, and has stub pylons to hang weapons on.

That wraps things up for San Diego. Next time, we'll head for the second-biggest base in the Pacific, at Pearl Harbor.

1 Google Earth gives the data for data at time of writing as 11/17/2018.

2 America can be distinguished from Bonhomme Richard, also numbered 6 and homeported in San Diego, by the exhaust for her propulsion plant, which is identical to Makin Island and different from the other Wasps.

3 Because of the Jones Act (which is terrible and should be abolished), ships that travel between US ports have to be US-built and US-manned. The vessel in question is intended for the West Coast-Hawaii run.


  1. November 18, 2020echo said...

    Is that a rail system for mobile cranes in the carrier dock area? Can carriers do most of their replenishment there, or is there another facility for that?

    Also, does Matson have a straight-up monopoly on Jones act shipping these days? No wonder stuff in Hawaii is so expensive.

  2. November 18, 2020Trofim_Lysenko said...

    You forgot San Clemente Island! It's administered by Coronado and hosts a small auxiliary airfield as well as further training facilities for NSW (Pretty sure the land warfare phase of BUD/S is here, just going off what's visible: shooting ranges, CQB mockups, etc.).

  3. November 18, 2020Trofim_Lysenko said...

    I don't have time to dig in at work, but I'd note there are some interesting radar installations there as well, including what appears to be a missile battery of some sort. I count 3 definite 3-missile launch sites arranged in a rough N-S arc (and what looks like it used to be a fourth), and there's a good shadow on a parabolic antenna I can see if I can ID when I get home.

  4. November 18, 2020bean said...


    As far as I know, the carriers do all of their replenishment there. And Matson may well have that monopoly, although I suspect that a bunch of stuff comes from China directly.

    @Trofim Lysenko

    I didn't forget, I knew about it but decided that it was a bit far away and I don't really care about NSW. (I may take a look at the LA area at some point, and would include it there.) As for the radar, I'd guess that's a training site, based on what I remember from Dick Couch's book on BUD/S. (Red before my current antipathy for them developed.)

  5. November 18, 2020Blackshoe said...

    Worth noting that 3rd Fleet Headquarters is its own base on Point Loma, as well.

    @Trofim Lysenko: I know SCI serves as the base for conducting air defense exercises, including ones where ships get to shoot down an incoming missile. So the launchers and radars might be there to support those.

  6. November 19, 2020Philistine said...

    I'm not sure how old the Google Map photo is, but Googling "MCAS Miramar F-16" turned up a story about 16 F-16s from the 314th FS at Holloman TDYing to Miramar for two weeks of training in May-June of 2019. I wouldn't be surprised if that was at least a semi-regular part of the syllabus. And the F-16s pictured definitely look like USAF property rather than, say, a visiting Aggressor squadron.

    Separately, is that a Canberra just west of the F-18s? I knew a handful of those had hung around for a very long while, but didn't realize any were still flying. Man, those things just keep going and going.

  7. November 19, 2020bean said...

    That does look like a Canberra. I believe NASA has a few for high-altitude research. Good catch.

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