In a move that is likely to anger Beijing, Washington is reportedly holding high-level talks with Canberra on the rotational deployment of long-range bombers to Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. has reported.
Discussions with Australia are underway “to have American B-1 bombers and aerial tankers temporarily stationed” in the Northern Territory, ABC said Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, had revealed Tuesday.
Such a deployment would put the aircraft within striking distance of the disputed South China Sea, though Robinson focused on the training and operational aspects of the envisaged rotation.
“We’re in the process of talking about rotational forces, bombers and tankers out of Australia (Tindal and Darwin), and it gives us the opportunity to train with Australia,” Robinson told reporters in Canberra, adding that the move would “strengthen the ties we already have” and help “pilots to understand the theater.”
The revelation comes amid reports that Beijing has sent missile and radar systems, as well as fighter jets, to disputed islands in the South China Sea. China has also conducted a massive dredging program that has turned several coral reefs into man-made islands, including some that now boast lighthouses and docks — as well as airstrips and sophisticated military equipment.
“B-1s have flown to bases in Australia before. In fact they have been regulars at Australia air shows since the 1990s,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “What is different this time is that this is part of a force-posture initiative to step up U.S. naval and air access to Australian bases as part of the U.S. rebalance to Asia.”
The rebalance has also seen the U.S. stage what it calls “freedom of navigation” patrols in the disputed waters, with the last one coming in January near Triton Island in the Paracel chain.
Strategically, being able to rotate bombers through Australian bases would provide a boost for Washington, which has asked other nations — including Australia — to conduct similar patrols.
“First, it allows them to train with Australian forces, thus increasing the interoperability and military effectiveness with a capable ally in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Andrew Davies, a senior analyst and director of research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Secondly, having locations to operate from further away from China than existing bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam gives a greater operational depth, as Chinese power projection makes those near locations more contestable.”
The Lowy Institute’s Graham agreed.
“The B-1 is not a new aircraft, of course, but its speed, range and low-flying capability do give it enduring advantages in the A2/AD era,” Graham said, referring to anti-access/area-denial capabilities deployed by China in the region to counter power projection by the U.S. and its allies.
“Australia also has the space to allow the U.S. to train, which few other countries can offer — part of the reason for the marines coming to Darwin,” Graham added. “Strategically, Australia’s location gives the USAF forward-deployed ‘depth’ beyond the range of most ballistic missiles, and ‘dispersal’ to avoid overconcentration on Guam.”
Robinson is the second top U.S. official in the last month to publicly urge Australia to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, said on Feb. 21 that it would be “valuable” if Australia and others sent warships to conduct similar operations within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of disputed territories.
News of the talks comes after the Australian government said in May that a senior U.S. defense official “misspoke” when he told lawmakers in Washington that the Pentagon had planned to send B-1 bombers to Australia.
According to Davies, little has changed since then.
“The Australian polity is sensitive to American bases here, and both sides of politics avoid the language. We’re not talking about bases, but rotational deployments.”
Still, Davies said, the issue of command and control could turn out to be a serious question — could American forces operating from Australia operate unilaterally, or would they require Australian concurrence?