A US Air Force B-52 bomber flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on January 10, 2016. The US is preparing to deploy up to six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers in northern Australia. Photo: AP
Sameed Basha
Sameed Basha

In hosting US B-52 bombers, Australia risks making itself a target for China

  • Such misguided bravado will hurt Australia’s economy, which is heavily dependent on China, and increase the size of the target on Canberra’s back in the event of war
Plans by the US to station up to six B-52 bombers in Northern Australia are part of a broader strategy to incorporate elements of its Aukus alliance and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in a multilayered military doctrine designed to contain China and assert US dominance in the South China Sea and Pacific.

The bombers are a part of a broader A$1 billion (US$646 million) upgrade of defence facilities, which includes funding to expand both the US-Australian spy base at Pine Gap and the Tindal air force base, where a parking area for the aircraft is expected to be completed by 2026.

The time frame for the completion of this expansion is of particular interest as Western analysts see 2026/2027 as when Beijing could launch a military takeover of Taiwan to fulfil its reunification goal.

Defence analysts in Canberra have taken a tiered approach to establishing Australia’s role in securing US interests in the region, which has slowly evolved since the US pivot to Asia in 2011. US and Australian experts inherently believe Taiwan stands between Beijing and its ability to control the South China Sea and project power deep into the Pacific.

To do so, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have to neutralise US bases in the first island chain of defence, such as Okinawa, an important logistics staging point in both the Vietnam and Korean wars. The Chinese military’s next target would then be the second island chain, including Guam, which provides critical theatre operations and logistical support for US forces in the region.
In any conflict with China, Guam will be the most forward-operating Pacific station and vital for staging, refuelling, repairing and rearming aircraft, making it a significant target for the PLA, which has been practising bombing runs on the archipelago, according to the US.
Within the PLA Rocket Force’s arsenal of missiles, the Dongfeng-26, also known as the “Guam killer”, is an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of targeting the island. Guam does not have a fixed air defence system. Instead, it relies on an interim system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and naval firepower to defend itself and intercept incoming aircraft and ballistic missiles.
War simulations project that in the event of an attack, the PLA would saturate Guam with ballistic missiles, overwhelming the systems and destroying the island’s ability to support US allies in the region and project US power in the Pacific. The B-52 bombers stationed on Guam would be severely compromised, and scattering them back to the US mainland would create operational setbacks.

It is here that Australia’s strategic location will be used as an insurance policy by the US to position its air and maritime assets outside China’s current ballistic missile zone. The stationing of B-52 bombers at the Tindal airbase will allow the US to deliver long-range cruise and ballistic missiles targeting Chinese air and naval assets from a distance and with increasing ambiguity as to their location, making it harder for the PLA to track them in the event of a war.

But in this age of hypersonic and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the some 2,000 ballistic missiles that China possesses, such as the DF-31 and DF 31-A, can cover all of Australia as they can hit targets as far as 7,000km or 11,000km away respectively.


Chinese hypersonic weapons test ‘has all of our attention’, US General Mark Milley says

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No military base or spy listening post is off-limits, as the role defined for the B-52 nuclear-capable bombers is to act as “missile trucks” that can “safely stay outside the range of China’s air defences and launch cruise missiles”, according to the Lowy Institute. Northern Australia is being transformed into Guam 2.0, with many more agreements expected to station all three commands of the US forces, putting the country firmly in China’s sights.

But the security establishment and the government are on diverging paths. On the one hand, the Albanese government seeks to stabilise ties with “great power” China and is urging Beijing to use its influence on Russia to end the war in Ukraine. On the other hand, analysts such as Richard Tanter from the Nautilus Institute gleamingly state that the B-52 bombers are “a sign to the Chinese that we are willing to be the tip of the spear”.

In reality, Australia’s core China policy remains hardline

Such misguided bravado will come at the expense of blunting Australia’s export-oriented economy, which is heavily dependent on China. Besides a bombing raid on Darwin and Japanese midget submarines infiltrating Sydney Harbour in 1942, Australia has never really witnessed the trauma of war at home.

But like adventure-seeking Anzacs (soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in World War I), unaware of what war really meant, Canberra must beware of seeking a thrill it is unprepared for, as each evolution in policy targeting China increases the size of the target on Australia’s back.

Sameed Basha is a defence and political analyst with a master’s degree in international relations from Deakin University, Australia