assessments

Mar 15, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

4 mins read

Moving U.S. Bombers out of Harm's Way

Patrons line up to look through a US Air Force B-52 bomber during the Australian International Airshow in Melbourne on March 1, 2013. 180,000 patrons are expected through the gates over the duration of the event staged at the Avalon Airfield some 80kms south-west of Melbourne. AFP PHOTO / Paul CROCK (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
(PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

The United States is in talks with Australia to deploy more strategic bomber aircraft at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin. Beyond further strengthening the U.S.-Australian military alliance, moving U.S. bombers to Australia from their usual station in Guam will protect them from China's intermediate-range missiles. As for Australia, deeper cooperation with the United States is a welcome step toward greater security, especially since China is still stoking tensions throughout the region with its claims to contested waters in the South China Sea.

With limited resources and vulnerable maritime supply lines, Australia has long sought to enhance security through strategic military alliances with strong naval powers. During World War II, the United States replaced the United Kingdom as Australia's principal military ally. The resulting alliance has proved its strength, surviving to this day. In recent decades, however, economic links between China and Australia have grown substantially. Now, China is Australia's biggest trade partner. Therefore, as American and Chinese interests clash, Canberra finds itself caught between its primary military and trade allies.

This is not to say that Australia must choose between Washington and Beijing. Short of a full war between the United States and China, Australia can maintain relations with both countries, reassuring them that its commitments to each side remain strong. Nevertheless, where security is concerned, the Australians are increasingly willing to demonstrate their alliance with the United States, especially in light of China's buildup in the South China Sea. Canberra already patrols the South China Sea, which is an important conduit for trade, but Australia is now considering coordinated patrols with the United States to push back against Chinese claims to that critical body of water.

The United States recognizes the strategic advantage of closer military links with Australia. In 2011, Canberra agreed to a deployment of U.S. troops on Australian soil that would reach 2,500 by 2017. For Washington, rotating forces through Australia solidifies ties with the country, encourages a more unified stance in the South China Sea, provides opportunities for specialized regional training, and improves interoperability between U.S. and Australian armed forces.

Moreover, China's burgeoning military capabilities provide added incentive for the United States to expand its bomber deployment in Australia. Although the United States maintains considerable military forces in the western Pacific, a dearth of air bases in the region limits its strategic military position there. China's continued investment in a ballistic and cruise missile arsenal has further complicated matters, posing a potential threat to fixed American air bases and mobile carrier fleets alike.

Traditionally, the United States rotates heavy bombers through Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. This base is at once within comfortable range of potential hot spots such as the Taiwan Strait and beyond the reach of Chinese short-range ballistic missiles. But now that the Chinese are acquiring missiles with enough range to reach the island, such as the DF-26, Guam is becoming more of a potential target.

To minimize its vulnerability against China's arsenal, the United States is investing in kinetic anti-ballistic missile technology and spoofing gear that will jam, obstruct and confuse Chinese missiles. Washington is also considering building more hangars and bunkers and enhancing airfield repair capabilities in the region. But more significantly, the United States is exploring alternative airfields and air base locations. In February, the U.S. Air Force chose Tinian Island, just north of Guam, as a preferred alternative airfield "in the event access to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, or other western Pacific locations is limited or denied," according to an Air Force statement. And as the United States seeks to maximize security, there will be more U.S. airfield investments throughout the region.

Compared with its tactical combat fleet, the United States' bomber fleet has a much longer range and can be deployed in more distant air bases beyond the reach of Chinese missiles. While Guam is now within range of the DF-26, Darwin remains beyond the reach of all conventional Chinese ballistic missiles. Thus, rotating additional bombers through Australia serves a dual function for the United States, better protecting its aircraft from Chinese missiles while also strengthening the U.S.-Australian military alliance. Meanwhile, in welcoming American forces, Australia also opens itself to the risk that China will try to develop a means to target those forces. 

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