B-52s have a combat range of about 14,000 kilometres and are capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional weapons. Photo by Stocktrek Images via Getty
The U.S. is set to deploy six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to northern Australia, and build dedicated facilities to house them, according to an ABC report published on Monday. The Australian broadcaster’s current affairs programme, Four Corners, revealed U.S. documents detailing an expansion plan at the Tindal air base, south of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, which included a “squadron operations facility” in addition to a maintenance centre and parking area for the B-52s.
The upgrade will cost up to $100 million and the parking area is set to be finished in late 2026—though a U.S. official declined to say when the bombers would be relocated. The long-range heavy bombers, which have a combat range of about 14,000 kilometres and are capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional weapons, are one part of a much larger, $1 billion-plus upgrade of military assets across Australia’s north by U.S. forces. This includes the construction of 11 giant jet fuel storage tanks that would allow them to conduct aerial operations from there. The upgrade is viewed as a provocative response by Washington to growing tensions and fears around a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy claimed by Beijing. “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 U.S. Air Force told Four Corners. “The RAAF’s [Royal Australian Air Force] ability to host USAF bombers, as well as train alongside them, demonstrates how integrated our two air forces are.”Others, meanwhile, fear the collaboration could be interpreted as geopolitical favouritism from Australia: a signal of its firm commitment to the U.S. that could potentially put it in China’s firing line in the event that tensions boil over into conflict, or war.“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,” Richard Tanter, a senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute and anti-nuclear activist, told Four Corners.
“It’s a great expansion of Australian commitment to the United States’ war plan with China. It’s a sign to the Chinese that we are willing to be the tip of the spear.”Australia’s minister for defence personnel, Matt Keogh, attempted to dissuade such fears, telling reporters that he doesn’t believe the rotation of B-52s in Australia would further inflame tensions with China.“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 said.Newly-elected Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese similarly played down the geopolitical significance of the move, noting during a media conference that Australia engages with the U.S. on defence alliances “from time to time.”“There are visits, of course, to Australia, including in Darwin, that has U.S. Marines, of course, on a rotating basis stationed there,” Albanese said.The revelations of the U.S.’s expanded military presence in Australia come just two weeks after Chinese leader Xi Jinping opened a Communist Party summit by reaffirming China’s commitment to taking Taiwan—by force if necessary—and denounced “the serious provocations of external forces interfering in Taiwan’s affairs.”“We reserve the option of taking all necessary measures,” Xi said. “This is aimed at the interference of external forces and a very small number of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists.”At the summit, Xi secured a historic third term as leader of the party, making him China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.