The US Air Force says that the option to send bombers to Australia that can drop nuclear weapons “sends a strong message to our enemies.”
The United States is planning to send six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to an air base in northern Australia (ABC).
The ABC claimed on Monday, citing US documents, that Washington has drawn up comprehensive plans to establish specific facilities for the aircraft at Tindal Air Base, around 300 kilometers (185 miles) south of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.
The Australian Department of Defence did not respond to the claim, but the US Air Force told the BBC that sending bombers to Australia “sends a powerful message to our adversaries about our ability to project lethal air force.”
What do Adversaries mean?
Analysts told ABC that the move was a message to China amid fears that it would attack Taiwan’s self-ruled island.
“Having bombers that can range and potentially attack mainland China might be very essential in sending a signal to China that any of its activities over Taiwan could also stretch further,” the Center for New American Security’s Becca Wasser said.
An ABC report says that because of tensions with China, the US has agreed to spend $1 billion to improve its military capabilities in northern Australia.
Washington’s plans for Tindal include a “squadron operations facility” for use during the dry season in the Northern Territory, an adjoining maintenance center, and parking space for the six B-52s, according to the statement.
The company that makes these planes, Boeing says that the B-52 is the most combat-ready bomber the US has.
The long-range heavy bomber has served as the backbone of the United States Air Force, and is capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional missiles.
The US Air Force says that the fact that Australia can host the bombers and do training exercises together shows “how integrated our two air forces are.”
Beijing was quick to reject a prior defense treaty agreed in 2021 by Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, which promised to give Canberra the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time.
A representative for China’s Foreign Ministry claimed at the time that the historic AUKUS treaty risked “severely harming regional peace” and “intensifying arms competition.”
US Air Force
wants to have five strategic bomber bases that can store nuclear weapons by the 2030s. Right now, there are only two.
The plan will also make it so that by the 2030s, all five of the bomber sites that store nuclear cruise missiles will be up from one today.
The expansion is a result of a decision to replace the non-nuclear B-1B bombers at Ellsworth AFB and Dyess AFB with nuclear B-21 bombers over the next 15 years and to put back in place at Barksdale AFB the ability to store nuclear weapons.
According to Air Force Global Strike Command Commander General Timothy Ray, the extension is not intended to increase the total number of nuclear weapons assigned to the bomber force but rather to widen the infrastructure to “accommodate mission growth.”
Expansion of Warplanes Bases
In May 2018, the Air Force stated that the B-21 would replace the B-1B and B-2A bombers at Ellsworth AFB, Dyess AFB, and Whiteman AFB. Later, the commander of the strategic bomber force showed a video to the B-1B sites and said, “The B-21 will bring big changes to each station, including the return of nuclear mission requirements.”
The Air Force initially planned for the B-21 to replace the B-2A by 2032 and the B-1Bs by 2036, though those dates may have moved slightly since then.
The integration of the B-21 will raise the number of nuclear stealth bomber bases from one (Whiteman AFB) to three in the future.
As part of the plan to upgrade, nuclear cruise missiles will be moved from Minot AFB, where they are now, to all five bomber bases by the late 2030s.
The B-21 bomber program is projected to expand the strength of the US strategic bomber force. The Air Force now employs 158 bombers (62 B-1B, 20 B-2A, and 76 B-52H) and has long stated that it intends to acquire at least 100 B-21 bombers.
That figure now appears to be at least 145, increasing the whole bomber force by 62 bombers to around 220. The Air Force aims to raise the number of bomber squadrons from nine to fourteen (each base has more than one squadron).
Then, General Timothy Ray, the commander of AFGSC, reportedly told reporters in April that the 220 figure was a “minimum, not a ceiling,” adding, “We as the Air Force now believe it’s over 220.” It remains to be seen whether Congress will agree to fund so many B-21s.
The deployment of a large number of B-21 bombers that can carry nuclear weapons will affect how the US nuclear arsenal grows in the future.
New START accord
The United States has pledged to deploy no more than 60 nuclear bombers under the New START accord. Even though the treaty will end in 2026 (after a maximum extension of five years), it will be used to plan the long-term structure of nuclear forces.
Unless the Air Force limits the number of nuclear-equipped B-21 bombers to the number of B-2As now in service, the number of nuclear bombers will begin to exceed the pledged 60 deployed nuclear bombers by 2028. (assuming an annual production of nine aircraft and a two-year delay in the deployment of the first nuclear unit).
Even without New START, it is difficult to see a military reason for such an increase in the number of nuclear bombers. One would hope that the number of nuclear B-21s is kept considerably below the total.
Although the New START deal would have expired before this became a legal issue, it would have already sent the wrong message to other nuclear-armed states about the US’s long-term intentions, deepening suspicion and “Great Power Competition” and complicating future arms control talks.
In the middle term, the Biden administration should promise not to add more nuclear bombers than the New START agreement allows. It should also try to get Russia to make a similar promise about the size of its nuclear bomber force.