Australian Airbase Gets Upgrades For American Bomber Deployments

Details of upgrades at RAAF Base Tindal to support B-52s and more come as the U.S. and Australia strengthen ties and look to deter China.

byThomas Newdick| PUBLISHED Oct 31, 2022 4:12 PM
Australian Airbase Gets Upgrades For American Bomber Deployments
Australian Department of Defense / sam.gov
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An airbase in northern Australia is being upgraded to better accommodate deployments of up to six U.S. Air Force B-52 strategic bombers in a potentially provocative move that’s been widely seen as a deterrent toward China. While deployments of U.S. bombers to Australia are in themselves not new, the latest development includes dedicated facilities that will make regular stationing of these aircraft much more efficient and also comes at a time of significant tensions between the United States (as well as close ally Australia) and China, especially over the future of Taiwan.

The upgrade work at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Tindal, a remote installation south of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, is being funded by the U.S. government and its extent was today confirmed by Australian officials, ABC reported. The changes to the base will include an expanded apron with space for six B-52s, squadron operations facilities, and maintenance infrastructure. Once completed, the airbase will be much better able to host bomber detachments, as well as tankers and fighters, with work also addressing fuel and munitions storage and mission planning buildings. Currently, Tindal is the permanent home to a single RAAF F-35A stealth fighter squadron.

The cost of the squadron operations and maintenance facilities at Tindal has been put at $14.4 million, with the total value of the modernization at the base reaching $100 million.

Part of the plans for the modernization work at RAAF Base Tindal, showing six B-52s on the new apron. sam.gov
RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, in its current configuration. Google Earth

According to documents cited by ABC’s Four Corners, “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 ability to deploy U.S. Air Force bombers to Australia sends a strong message to adversaries about our ability to project lethal air power,” the Air Force told Four Corners.

While the remodeled airbase will be able to support six B-52s, there’s no reason that other aircraft types — as well as other U.S. Air Force bombers, including the forthcoming B-21 stealth bomber — won’t be able to make use of the same facilities. B-2s, for example, have been recent visitors to Australia, with four of the stealth bombers having deployed to RAAF Base Amberley, in Queensland, earlier this year, something you can read more about here.

Reports today confirm that Australia’s Labor government, which won the election in May, has now firmly committed to the airbase modernization after plans were prepared under the previous Coalition government.

A RAAF F-35A Lightning II, EA-18G Growler, and F/A-18F Super Hornet fly alongside a U.S. Air Force B-52H from the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron based at Guam during Exercise Talisman Sabre 21. Australian Department of Defense

Australian officials have told reporters that the project is now in the “design phase,” with the work projected to be completed in late 2026.

The periodic presence of U.S. bombers in Australia is by no means new, dating back to the early 1980s, while larger-scale training exercises in the country have involved U.S. bombers since 2005. More recently, the Enhanced Air Cooperation Initiative has been in place, involving deeper efforts to have the RAAF and U.S. military aircraft work closer together, with regular bomber rotations since 2018.

A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit, assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, arrives in support of a Bomber Task Force training exercise at RAAF Amberley, Australia, July 10, 2022. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dylan Nuckolls

However, the new plans for Tindal also suggest that the United States plans to further step up its bomber deployments to northern Australia, in terms of numbers, duration, and regularity. Most importantly, Tindal will add another forward operating location for U.S. bombers, on top of Hawaii, Guam, and Diego Garcia, also in the broader region. The potential vulnerability of bases like these, especially to Chinese missile strikes, means any additional base able to accept bombers for regular operations is a big bonus. What’s more, northern Australia is that much further away from China, making it harder to attack from the mainland.

The plan for Tindal is also very clearly directed at China, although Australian officials have made efforts to distance the project from simmering tensions with Beijing.

This is especially relevant since the B-52 is a long-range strike asset able to carry a wider variety of weapons, including nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and RAAF Base Tindal puts these aircraft easily within striking reach of mainland China. The B-52 also has an important anti-surface warfare capability that is of great significance in the South China Sea and other highly strategic maritime areas in the region.

A U.S. Air Force weapons load crew transports an inert Mk 62 Quick Strike mine before loading it into the bomb bay of a B-52H. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Randahl J. Jenson

In the recent past, Chinese state media channels have quoted Chinese defense analysts expressing concerns that Australia could essentially become an “overseas bomber base” of the U.S. military. Predictably, there has also been a strong reaction from the Chinese government to the latest development.

“Defense and security cooperation between any countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability and not target or harm the interests of third parties,” said Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian. He said the United States had “increased regional tensions, seriously undermined regional peace and stability, and may trigger a regional arms race.”

However, Matt Keogh, Australia’s Minister for Defense Personnel, refuted claims that the B-52 rotation plans for Tindal would worsen relations with China. “I don’t think so at all,” he told reporters while stating that Australia must remain “vigilant” in light of regional tensions.

“I think what’s really important here is that the more we are able to build interoperability with the Americans, growing on that very strong alliance,” Keogh added.

Minister for Veterans Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, the Matt Keogh at the Defence Strategic Review Indigenous Roundtable in Canberra, in October 2022. Australian Department of Defense

The current tensions with China were also referenced by Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Australia, who said the United States was committed to supporting “peace and stability throughout this region,” amid “increasing tensions.” The United States would “work with our partners and allies to make this [region] safe,” Kennedy added.

Overall, ramping up U.S. bomber deployments at Tindal is fully in line with announcements in September last year that the United States would expand its military presence in the region. This is part of the wider AUKUS initiative — standing for Australia, United Kingdom, United States — other standout items within which include the supply of nuclear-powered attack submarines to Australia, and increased intelligence sharing.

Immediately after the trilateral AUKUS announcement, talks were held in Washington DC involving senior Australian ministers.

Speaking at the time, Australia’s then Minister for Defense, Peter Dutton, said that Australia and the United States would be “significantly enhancing our force posture cooperation”, including “greater air cooperation through rotational deployments of all types of U.S. military aircraft to Australia.”

Dutton’s words were echoed by his U.S. counterpart, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who said that the two countries were exploring “greater and more frequent engagement … with our air capabilities, more training opportunities for our ground forces, and increasing our logistical footprint in Australia as well.”

In fact, the changes to Tindal are just part of a much larger raft of infrastructure projects that will help support the rotation of larger numbers of U.S. troops in the future. Other work is addressing fuel storage facilities, accommodation, and training areas, among others.

An RAAF F-35A taxis prior to takeoff during Exercise Pitch Black 2022, at RAAF Base Darwin. Australian Department of Defense

Against this backdrop, there are signs that the Australian government is seeking a twin-track approach when it comes to China and the potential military threat that the country poses to the wider region.

Officially, the Labor government is committed to the same defense posture as the previous administration, with China seen as the primary potential adversary. At the same time, however, the current government has sought to bring stability to the relationship with Beijing, including official meetings involving senior officials from both countries.

But while the infrastructure changes to Tindal are part of a wider ‘work in progress’ that predates the current Labor government, the timing of the announcement does mean that it’s very hard not to see the relevance of the growing U.S. military presence in Australia in the context of the current rift over Taiwan.

Earlier this month, China’s President Xi Jinping told the 20th Communist Party Congress that he would never rule out using force to “reunify” Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China.

Xi Jinping (left), attends a meeting during the Communist Party Congress on October 23, 2022, in Beijing. Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Over the course of the last few months, the Taiwan Strait, in particular, has been the focus of escalating tensions. That began with the visit to Taipei by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in early August. In response, China launched a series of war games that included launching missiles over Taiwan and sending an unprecedented number of aircraft into the Taiwan Strait. Since then, Chinese military activity has continued, albeit on a reduced scale.

Some analysts now predict that Beijing may seek to “reincorporate” Taiwan sooner rather than later, perhaps as early as 2025 to 2027. Some senior U.S. officers have offered even more pessimistic predictions, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, for example, warning that an invasion could come as early as this year or next.

Australia, too, has responded to regional instability by forging closer ties with Japan, in particular. The prime ministers of the two countries signed a new security declaration earlier this month, which calls for joint efforts to deter “aggression and behavior that undermines international rules and norms.”

A Japan Air Self-Defense Force pilot prepares to exit a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet after arriving at RAAF Base Darwin for Exercise Pitch Black 2022. Australian Department of Defense

Away from Taiwan, Australia, much like Japan, has voiced concerns about Chinese military activities and expansionist ambitions in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

There have also been particular flashpoints involving the Australian and Chinese militaries in recent months.

In May, the Australian Department of Defense accused a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-16 Flanker fighter jet of damaging an RAAF P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft by dropping countermeasures in its path. That incident, which we covered at the time, occurred over the contested South China Sea but was refuted by China.

The same month, Australian officials reacted with anger after a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) intelligence-gathering vessel appeared in international waters off the coast of Australia. The route of the vessel brought it close to a joint Australian and U.S. naval communication station, in what Minister of Defense Peter Dutton described  as an “aggressive act.”

An official Australian Department of Defense photo of the Type 815 Dongdiao class auxiliary intelligence ship, or AGI, Haiwangxing operating off the northwest shelf of Australia in May this year. Australian Department of Defense

With potential future conflict with China now seen as ever more likely within Australian defense and security circles, it may well be hoped that an expanded U.S. bomber presence at Tindal will come with increased deterrence value.

There has also been criticism from some circles in Australia that the very visible rotation of B-52 (or other long-range bombers), coupled with an increasingly close defense partnership with the United States ‘locks in’ Australia to any possible conflict involving those two actors.

Members of No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron of the RAAF during a patrol to search for possible enemy threats to RAAF Base Tindal. Australian Department of Defense

Even if the United States only made use of forward basing facilities in Australia during a war with China, the presence of its forces alone would very clearly put Australia on Beijing’s target list — including, potentially, for a range of pre-emptive strike contingencies.

But with the AUKUS initiative looking very much as if it’s here to stay, Air Force bomber rotations, alongside other U.S. military deployments, are likely to be the norm.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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