31 Oct 2022

US B-52 bombers to head to Australia as tensions with China grow

6:08 pm on 31 October 2022

By Angus Grigg, Lesley Robinson and Meghna Bali of ABC's Four Corners

A US B-52 bomber is escorted by two F-15 fighter aircraft during a fly-over at a sports game in Louisiana, on 16 October 2021.

A US B-52 bomber is escorted by two F-15 fighter aircraft during a fly-over at a sports game in Louisiana, in 2021. B-52s can deliver long-range strikes of both nuclear and conventional weapons. Photo: AFP/ Jonathan Bachman

The United States is preparing to deploy up to six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to northern Australia, a provocative move experts say is aimed squarely at China.

An investigation by ABC's Four Corners revealed Washington has plans to build dedicated facilities for the giant aircraft at Tindal air base, south of Darwin.

The US has drawn up detailed plans for what it calls a "squadron operations facility" for use during the Northern Territory dry season, an adjoining maintenance centre and a parking area for "six B-52s".

Becca Wasser from the Centre for New American Security says putting B-52s in northern Australia is a warning to China, as fears grow Beijing is preparing for an assault on Taiwan.

"Having bombers that could range and potentially attack mainland China could be very important in sending a signal to China that any of its actions over Taiwan could also expand further," she said.

The bombers are part of a much larger upgrade of defence assets across northern Australia, including a major expansion of the Pine Gap intelligence base, which would play a vital role in any conflict with Beijing.

The B-52s have been the backbone of the US Air Force for more than 60 years, with the capability to deliver long-range strikes of both nuclear and conventional weapons. The US documents said the facilities would be used for "deployed B-52 squadrons".

Plans for the Tindal air base expansion include a parking area that can accommodate six B-52 bombers.

Plans for the Tindal air base expansion include a parking area that can accommodate six B-52 bombers Photo: Supplied/ ABC Four Corners - Lindsay Dunbar

"The ability to deploy US Air Force bombers to Australia sends a strong message to adversaries about our ability to project lethal air power," the US Air Force told Four Corners.

Asked when the B-52s would begin their deployment at Tindal, Australia's Department of Defence declined to comment.

'The tip of the spear'

But some critics were worried that having B-52s rotating through Tindal each year would lock Australia into joining the US in any conflict against China.

"It's a great expansion of Australian commitment to the United States' war plan with China," said Richard Tanter, a senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute and a long-time, anti-nuclear activist.

"It's a sign to the Chinese that we are willing to be the tip of the spear."

Tanter said the planned deployment of the bombers is more significant than the rotation of US Marines through Darwin each year.

"It's very hard to think of a more open commitment that we could make. A more open signal to the Chinese that we are going along with American planning for a war with China," Tanter said.

Wasser said the growing importance of northern Australia to the US makes Darwin and Tindal targets in any war with China.

Her work includes running war game exercises to examine how a potential conflict might unfold.

She said in the war game scenarios where Australia either joined the fight or allowed Washington to use bases in the Top End, "it did very much put a bullseye on Australia".

"Ultimately these attacks were not successful because of the long range required and because China had already expended its most capable long-range missiles earlier in the game, … but who's to say that in the future, China might have more advanced missile capability that would be better suited to potentially attacking Australia."

US says China is growing in confidence

In recent months, US war planners and analysts have brought forward estimates for when they think Beijing could look to take Taiwan.

"The time frame for an assault on Taiwan, I would put it at 2025 to 2027," said defence academic Oriana Skylar Mastro from Stanford University.

"This is largely dependent on when I think the Chinese leadership and in particular [President] Xi Jinping can be confident that his military can do this."

China has been accused of building on Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan. (Shown on 11 May, 2015). The Spratlys are considered a potential flashpoint, and claimant nations including the Philippines have expressed alarm as China has embarked on massive reclamation activity.

The Spratly islands near the Philippines (shown here in 2015) are considered a potential flashpoint, and claimant nations have expressed alarm as China has embarked on massive reclamation and building activity on them. Photo: AFP/ Ritchie B Tongo

She said there was growing confidence within the People's Liberation Army that it could successfully invade Taiwan.

"For 15 years I would ask the Chinese military if they could do this [invade Taiwan], and the answer was 'no'. So the fact that for the first time at the end of 2020 they're starting to say 'yes', I think that's a significant message we should pay attention to," she said.

US has big plans for Australia

These growing tensions with China have made northern Australia a crucial defence hub for the US, which has committed to spending more than $1 billion upgrading its military assets across the Top End.

The Tindal air base expansion includes a parking area that can accommodate six B-52 bombers and is forecast to cost up to $US100 million. The US Air Force said the parking area would be finished in late 2026.

"The RAAF's ability to host USAF bombers, as well as train alongside them, demonstrates how integrated our two air forces are," it said.

In April, the US Department of Defence budgeted $US14.4 million for the squadron operations and maintenance facilities at Tindal.

"The [squadron operations] facility is required to support strategic operations and to run multiple 15-day training exercises during the Northern Territory dry season for deployed B-52 squadrons," the US documents said.

The US also plans to build its own jet fuel storage tanks and an ammunition bunker at the site.

"The north of Australia in the new geopolitical environment, has suddenly become strategically much more important, if not crucial to the US," said Paul Dibb, a former senior official at the Department of Defence in Canberra.

A greater presence of US forces in Australia was hinted at during last year's annual ministerial meetings, known as AUSMIN.

Under so-called "enhanced air co-operation" it was agreed there would be "rotational deployment of US aircraft of all types in Australia".

"Today we endorse major force posture initiatives that will expand our access and presence in Australia," US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said.

There was no mention of rotating B-52s through Tindal, although there had been hints in recent years.

Equally important to the growing US presence in northern Australia is the construction of 11-giant jet fuel storage tanks in Darwin.

Some of this fuel reserve was previously located at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, but was now being dispersed across the region.

"Without that kind of assurance of jet fuel in this country, the US simply wouldn't be able to treat Australia as a location from which it can stage military exercises and operations with confidence," said Ashley Townshend from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Townshend said the B-52s at Tindal would be just the start.

"We will see much greater numbers of US military personnel forward located in Australia. That will include personnel from all three services, navy, air force and army, as well as the marines in Darwin, which are likely to be expanded," he said.

In the AUSMIN communique, this was flagged as part of efforts to "advance … force posture co-operation" to "deter our adversaries".  

Spy base expands

While both governments had signalled the growing US military presence in Australia, the expansion of one site is veiled in secrecy. Very little had been said about Pine Gap.

The joint US and Australian spy base near Alice Springs is undergoing a major upgrade, according to Richard Tanter.

Alice Springs, Australia

The remote Australian town of Alice Springs Photo: 123RF

He had spent months poring over satellite images of Pine Gap and estimated the number of giant antennas had grown by more than a third over the past seven years.

"This is at a time when the Australian Parliament has been informed of none of this, no statements by ministers no questions by politicians," he said.

Tanter said Pine Gap's powerful "ears and eyes" were now heavily focused on China.

"The searching for Chinese missile sites, the searching for Chinese command sites, in a preparatory way, is absolutely on high priority at Pine Gap now," he said.

"This indicates the extraordinary importance and the increasing importance to the US at a time of potential war with China."

If a conflict broke out between the US and China, Tanter said Pine Gap would play a hugely significant role, particularly around missile defence systems.

"Pine Gap would be detecting the launch of the missile … it would be queuing US missile defence systems to find that missile in mid-flight and attack it with their own missiles," he said.

Pine Gap's geo-location technology would then be used to find and destroy the missile launch site.

Paul Dibb, who held a high-level security clearance at Pine Gap for 30 years, said "it is the most potent intelligence collection facility that America has" outside of the US.

Dibb said this put Pine Gap on targeting lists for the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it would be on those same lists for China in any conflict with the US.

"If it looked as though that crisis was going nuclear, China may want to take out Pine Gap as being the ears and eyes of America's capability," he said.


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