Considering China as the “most consequential competitor” in its most recently unveiled National Defense Strategy in October 2022, the United States is much concerned regarding the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) growing potential in the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, the US is increasing its own military footprint in the region. The US’s claim to support its allies in the region is one of its top preferences in the forthcoming future. The US, therefore, planned to deploy up to six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to an air base in northern Australia. The stationing of the nuclear-capable bombers is not merely decisive for US strike capabilities but also plays its part in escalating the militarisation of Australia, the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the world. This analysis focuses on increasing US military support for its strategic partners and how it affects the security landscape of the region.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Four Corners” program at the end of October broke the news of the future deployment of six B-52 bombers while citing the US Department of Defence document. The plan of stationing these long-range strategic bombers included the maintenance centre and a parking lot at Tindal air base, situated about 300 kilometres southeast of Darwin. Although the positioning date of the aircraft is undisclosed, the parking lot is expected to be completed by late 2026 with an estimated cost of 100 million USD. In April 2022, the Pentagon allocated 14.4 million USD for a “squadron (of B-52) operations and maintenance facilities” at Tindal air base. Over the past decade, Australia has boosted its strategic partnership with the US as tensions with China have increased. Last year, Australia, the US and the United Kingdom (UK) signed “AUKUS”. It is a trilateral security pact under which the US and UK will help Australia acquire nuclear-propelled submarines and boost the military research and development of the latter. This newest deployment to Australia is Washington’s latest effort to promote military cooperation with Canberra and send a strong signal to Beijing as tensions surge in the Indo-Pacific.
Xi Jinping’s dream of making the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) an entirely “modern military” by 2035 and a “world-class” military by mid-century poses challenges to the American presence in the region.
The deployment of B-52s by the US in Australia is not a unique step undertaken by the Biden-Harris administration. During the Donald John Trump presidency, the country dispatched three such bombers that held drills with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in Darwin in 2018. Though it is unclear when the deployment of B-52s will occur, the rationale behind dispatching B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers to Darwin might be to deter the Chinese growing military influence in the region and assure extended deterrence to its allies. Deterring China is one of the US’ top priorities in its Indo-Pacific strategy and the most recently issued National Defense strategy. Therefore, keeping a potential conflict with China in mind, the US is upgrading its overseas defence facilities to send a strong signal against China’s assertiveness about the United States Air Force’s (USAF) ability to project its air power. Xi Jinping’s dream of making the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) an entirely “modern military” by 2035 and a “world-class” military by mid-century poses challenges to the American presence in the region. Research suggests that, by 2035, if not earlier, Beijing will likely be capable of contesting the American military power in the entire Indo-Pacific region. The most recent military drills of the PLA around the Taiwan Strait after Nancy Pelosi visited the country where the Chinese military demonstrated its sophisticated aircraft, naval ships and missiles, sent a blatant signal to the US and Taiwan about the PLA’s assertiveness in the region. Therefore, confronting aggression, deterring conflict, and projecting strength are clear objectives of the US in its contemporary strategy. While emphasising deterrence capabilities, the US support for its allies is apparent. Increasing the US military facilities in Australia will ensure the US its integrated deterrence capabilities against the rising Chinese influence in the region. This approach of strengthening the allies’ capabilities accelerates the ADF’s potential to establish anti-access/area denial across several domains.
The US support for Australia to enhance its forward posture is an alarming development for China. The US forces have already been using Australia’s northern territory to sustain its forward defence posture. Kicked off under the Obama administration, thousands of US Marines, on annual bases, conduct training and joint drills with the Australian forces. However, this time, placing these long-range heavy bombers, which have a combat range of about 14,000 kilometres, in the Tindal air base stresses more on directly deterring the PLA and might aim at limiting the US’ naval patrolling in the region. Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, when asked about the planned deployment, argued that “it’s not uncommon for us to send aircraft through to participate in joint exercises, combined exercises with Australia,” and further stated that “it also sends a clear message that we do have the capability to deter and, if necessary, engage.”
As tension between China and Taiwan increases, Washington might see Canberra as a more crucial partner in the region based on logistical support to come in defence of Taiwan against any future offensive by the Chinese military. Despite the Chinese military’s defensive posture, the USAF deployment of nuke-capable bombers will provoke the PLA to militarise the region and boost the security capabilities of the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command and its allied partners in the region. The situation can lead to an alliance dilemma. Despite being China’s largest trading partner, Canberra is more concerned about Beijing’s growing military influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, the country is more inclined to the US for security assurances. On the other hand, China would probably think of neutralising the US bases in the second island chain, including Darwin, by extending its military presence near Australia’s Northern Territory. As China recently signed a security pact with Australia’s neighbouring Solomon Islands, the country in the near future can use it for its military bases to neutralise the US threat, making China’s deterrence capabilities more credible.
The move will also affect other member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as they have economic ties with China. Unlike the US, China might not be able to assure security guarantees to its ASEAN allies. Beijing has more economic influence, while the US has more diplomatic and military influence than the former. Additionally, Washington’s growing influence over Canberra will definitely destabilise Australia’s diplomatic efforts. It will have a grave impact on the economic ties between Beijing and Canberra, as Australia’s policy towards China seems at the whim of the US.
China’s phenomenal economic growth and military modernisation, along with the technological progression and increasing global footprint, is an incontrovertible challenge to the US and its ardent determination to sustain American primacy. The US still relies on strengthening the allies’ capabilities to deter China. The increasing US military spending and enhancing the security of its allied partners while strengthening the integrated deterrence capabilities is an apparent move towards the Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The US is no more seeking the retrenchment policy under which a state tries to reduce its international and military costs and commitments. The cost of the deployment of such nuclear-capable bombers in the Tindal airbase signifies that the US is still spending billions of dollars while pursuing its forward defence posture to deter its adversaries.