Prepping for a China war: the new arc of militarisation across northern Australia

Nov 2, 2022
USAF B-52 Bomber Image: iStock

In an arc of militarisation across northern Australia, successive Australian governments, in close concert with the United States, have responded to the rise of a newly assertive China in terms that constitute an almost historically irrevocable opposition to any accommodation with China as a regional great power.

From the high-technology bases cluster along the length of North West Cape in Western Australia, to the port and barracks and air base of Darwin, to the newly joint RAAF-US Air Force base of Tindal outside Katherine, and to the deepening commitment to US global military operations, conventional and nuclear, of a rapidly expanding Pine Gap outside Alice Springs, Australia is joining the United States in preparation for war with China, most immediately over a war over Taiwan. 

In the midst of this rush to join forces, in Canberra there is not only a lack of assessment of whether or not Australia’s strategic interests and those of the US actually align over the Taiwan issue, but Canberra increasingly seems drawn in a US-centred widespread sense that war, at some time soon, is necessary and inevitable. 

The hard-wiring of northern Australian military facilities into the US force structure drastically reduces the freedom of action of an independently-minded Australian government focused on the defence of Australia. 

This is visible already in the Albanese government’s continuation of the Morrison government’s integration into US-dominated NATO. 

Pine Gap, already large and now growing more rapidly than ever before, will play an irreplaceable role in all US military operations from Africa to the Pacific and everything in between, both conventional and nuclear. 

Australian governments have long known, though rarely even hinted publicly, that they have known for half a century that Pine Gap was – and is – a high priority Soviet/Russian nuclear target in the event of major conflict with the US. The base remains so today for China, with the uncomforting caveat that China has roughly the same number of priority targets as Russia, but less than a tenth the number of long-range nuclear missiles that would be up to the task.

B-52s come to RAAF Tindal to stay

Moreover, the Morrison government’s 2020 commitment of $1.1 bn for the United States Force Posture Initiative Airfield Works Project Elements at RAAF Base Tindal has apparently been put on hold by the Pentagon’s new plans for a B-52 Bomber Task Force on permanent rotation from their home base in Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. 

According to Pentagon tender documents released by the ABC’s Four Corners, the US is planning yet further development at Tindal – beyond that acknowledged by the Australian government – for a USAF B-52 bomber task force on permanent rotation including, according to Pentagon tender documents, an ‘aircraft parking apron to accommodate six B-52s’, a USAF ‘squadron operations facility’, plus USAF maintenance centre, fuel dump, and ammunition depot.

B-52s have been landing at RAAF Darwin regularly since 2013 after the Gillard-Obama Darwin basing agreement, but expansion of Tindal to meet USAF requirements for B-52 deployments would make permanent presence possible.

 

Tindal as back up for vulnerable Guam

For the Pentagon, a B-52 deployment to Tindal provides backup to the increasingly vulnerable Andersen AFB on tiny, heavily militarised Guam. 

As former Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Dibb put it on Four Corners:

‘America has to take out an insurance policy because a lot of its forward military bases in places like the island of Guam near Japan and elsewhere in the region are coming much closer to Chinese military strike capabilities.

But beyond the Tindal fallback factor, the USAF is banking on the RAAF contributing critical assets to Tindal-based Bomber Task Force operations towards China in the form of the RAAF’s E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, plus the RAAF’s long-range tanker capability, and F-35 multirole fighters. 

While apparently unquestioned in Canberra, this unquestioned technical, doctrinal, and organisational integration of northern Australian military facility into US planning and preparation for an increasingly likely conflict with China has grave implications for Australian security. The Four Corners revelations add to the urgency of that assessment. 

B-52s, nuclear weapons, and South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone

There is one further urgent task coming from the planning for six B-52 bombers to be based on permanent rotation at Tindal. B-52-H bombers, albeit heading for their 70s but upgraded this year yet again, remain a frontline US strategic nuclear weapons platform. According to the Federation of American Scientists’ authoritative study United States nuclear weapons, 2021, of the 87 B-52s currently deployed by the USAF, 46 are nuclear capable, with each capable of carrying up to 20 nuclear armed air-launched cruise missiles. 

At present, the language of the B-52 permanent rotational deployment is in terms of training, as was the Fraser government’s 1981 agreement to allow B-52s on navigation training exercises into Darwin. 

Fraser’s agreement required explicit Australian government prior approval of use of that access for any other purpose. We know nothing of the implementing agreements under the Morrison and Albanese government’s allowing the Tindal deployment. 

The issue of the constraints on the deployment under an implementing agreement will become critically important in what could be a crisis-driven US decision to bring the B-52s into war. 

The fabled doctrine of the Australian government controlling the uses to which the joint facilities can be put is phrased in legal agreements as our ‘Full Knowledge and Concurrence’ with American operational uses of Pine Gap, all the North West Cape cluster of bases, and now RAAF Tindal and more.

And yet, nuclear-capable B52 bombers at Tindal raise a fundamental issue for Australia which requires urgent clarification by the Albanese government: the prohibition under the Treaty of Raratonga establishing the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, Article 5 of which begins, unambiguously:

‘1. Each Party undertakes to prevent in its territory the stationing of any nuclear explosive device.’

However, during the negotiations of that treaty Australia supported the position of the United States that any Pacific NWFZ must allow the transit of nuclear weapons on board visiting ships and aircraft, resulting in a second clause to Article 5:

‘2. Each Party in the exercise of its sovereign rights remains free to decide for itself whether to allow visits by foreign ships and aircraft to its ports and airfields, transit of its airspace by foreign aircraft, and navigation by foreign ships in its territorial sea or archipelagic waters in a manner not covered by the rights of innocent passage, archipelagic sea lane passage or transit passage of straits.’

The US – and Australian – intent was No More New Zealands.’

While a normal interpretation of the meaning of ‘visits’ and ‘transit’ would not include something like permanent extensive rotation deployments, this second clause is now more deeply problematic than ever. 

As a matter of urgency the Albanese government should declare that it accepts that under the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone any deployments of nuclear weapons to Australia in any form or under any pretext will not be permitted. 

The government must require the US to answer the key questions: 

  • Will US nuclear strategic weapons be brought to Australia in any form, for whatever duration, under any circumstances?
  • On any occasion a US nuclear-capable bomber deploys to Australia, is it carrying nuclear weapons?

Australian government acceptance of statements that the United States will ‘neither confirm nor deny’ the presence of nuclear weapons in any form in Australia equate to an abandonment of sovereignty. 

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