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US to deploy B-52 bombers to Australia as tensions with China mount

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The US plans to deploy B-52 bombers to Australia, in Washington’s latest effort to boost military co-operation with Canberra and send a strong signal to China as tensions mount in the Indo-Pacific.

The Pentagon will deploy the B-52s, which carry nuclear or conventional weapons, to Australia’s Northern Territory as part of rotational bomber task forces that conduct exercises with allies. They will be deployed to Tindal air force base for short missions, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The US has deployed B-52s to Australia before. In 2018, two of the bombers conducted exercises with Australian forces in Darwin.

However, sending as many as six of the aircraft would mark a big increase in presence and comes as the US and Australia seek to work more closely together to counter Chinese activity, particularly near Taiwan.

“The US air force has been rotating bombers through Australia for years. . . so this isn’t new, but a total of six bombers does appear like a significant enhancement to previous deployments and is likely to draw the attention of both regional allies and Beijing,” said Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute think-tank.

“It hints at a future where bomber and tanker rotations will become a regular occurrence or even a permanent presence one day.”

In July, the US sent four nuclear-capable B-2 Spirit stealth bombers to Amberley air force base near Brisbane, in another deployment that was partly aimed at sending a deterrence message to China. Another B-2 flew to Amberley in March while Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific command, was on a week-long visit to the country.

Australia has accelerated forging closer military ties with the US over the past decade as tensions with China have risen. Last year, the US, Australia and UK signed “Aukus”, a trilateral deal that will provide nuclear-propelled submarines for the southern hemisphere country and boost military research and development.

It is unclear when the US will begin the B-52 deployments. The move comes as the Pentagon debates how to determine China, where in the Indo-Pacific to deploy assets and the right balance between stationing aircraft in the region and sending them to countries on shorter rotational deployments.

The Financial Times reported last week that the US would start a two-year process to remove four dozen aging F-15 fighter jets stationed in Okinawa. The air force will temporarily replace the jets with more advanced F-22 fighters that will rotate into Okinawa from Alaska.

The air force said its commitment to regional deterrence and the defense of Japan was “ironclad” and that it would maintain a “steady state presence” in Okinawa. But it added that it had not established a long-term solution to replace the F-15s, which some critics have argued weaken US deterrence and sends a dangerous message to the Chinese military.

The Australian defense department did not comment on the B-52 deployment. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters: “We engage with our friends in the US alliance from time to time. There are visits to Australia, including in Darwin, that has US marines on a rotating basis stationed there.”

The Pentagon referred questions to the US air force, which did not respond to a comment on the development, which was first reported by ABC News.

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