Tuesday, March 8, 2016

United States Air Force Seeks to Enlarge Australian Footprint: Pacific commander says U.S. aims to expand its rotation of aircraft into a more frequent presence

The Wall Street Journal
By Rob Taylor
March 8, 2016 5:10 a.m. ET

CANBERRA, Australia—Russia is increasingly flexing its air muscle in Asia, the commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific said, potentially adding to the strategic complexity for the U.S. in a region where it is already jostling with China.

The U.S. plans to expand its rotation of bombers and refueling aircraft in Australia into a more frequent presence, Gen. Lori Robinson said Tuesday, much as U.S. Marines have done in the country’s vast northern tropics.

Russia has eased back on long-range air patrols near European nations—which sparked alarm in 2014, sending NATO-nation fighter jets scrambling more than 150 times—but its reconnaissance aircraft are now appearing more frequently over Asia, Gen. Robinson said. The Russian navy has also been expanding its regional presence.

“We have seen Russian long-range aviation come through the Pacific, circumnavigating Japan and circumnavigating Guam,” she told reporters in the Australian capital Canberra. She added that flying through international airspace, like sailing through international waters, is Russia’s right as a nation.

“That’s Russia’s to do,” Gen. Robinson said.

Russia stopped regular patrols of the Pacific Ocean region after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but has begun to reassert its strategic presence under President Vladimir Putin. Russian warships have sailed toward the U.S. coast and into the South Pacific in recent years, while Moscow has worked to secure refueling arrangements for its long-range bombers.

The Russian Ministry of Defense didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, a national holiday in Russia.

The U.S. has been asserting this “freedom of navigation” itself, sending ships and planes near Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea as a challenge to Beijing’s maritime claims. Chinese officials have cited those patrols in accusing the U.S. of militarizing the region—an echo of an accusation the U.S. has leveled at China.

While saying that sailing or flying through areas claimed by China does increase the risk of a military “miscalculation,” Gen. Robinson declared that the U.S. “would encourage anybody in the region and around the world to fly and sail in international airspace in accordance to international rules.”

Australia, like Japan a key U.S. ally in the region, hasn’t sent its ships on any freedom-of-navigation operations through the South China Sea, but its naval aircraft do regularly fly through the region—though at a greater distance from the artificial islands.

In a defense blueprint released Feb. 24 by conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Australia unveiled details of a planned 10-year, $140 billion military expansion, saying it would strengthen its U.S. alliance. It also urged Beijing to be more forthcoming about its security intentions in the South China Sea, saying they would have a “major impact” on the stability of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region in coming decades.

Gen. Robinson said the U.S. is discussing rotating aircraft and crews through Australian bases in Darwin and Tindal, in the country’s north, as Washington looks to expand its military footprint.

“It would be useful to train across the spectrum of capability,” she said. As to whether that means B-1 supersonic bombers and B-52 strategic bombers, “we are still working through the details.”

The bomber issue is a sensitive one in Australia, where many worry that an increased U.S. military presence could make the country more of a military target. A senior U.S. defense official last year sparked a political furor in Australia by saying the U.S. intended to shift B-1 bombers there in response to China’s construction of military runways in the South China Sea.

The U.S. has been gradually ramping up the number of Marines rotating through Darwin since President  Barack Obama announced plans in 2011 to eventually station 2,500 there for six months a year.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.wsj.com

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