US Solidifies Air Force Presence ‘Down Under’ In Australia To Counter China’s Aggression In Indo-Pacific

Amid dialed-up tensions with China and Australia seeking an enhanced role in the Indo-Pacific, the Australian Federal government lauded the completion of a fuel storage facility at RAAF Base Darwin funded by the United States. It has been hailed as a significant turning point in the US-Australian cooperation.

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The United States has provided funding for constructing a new fuel station at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Darwin in northern Australia as part of its Enhanced Air Cooperation (EAC) agreement. The facility is intended to enable the deployment of US military aircraft to this location, according to media reports.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden first revealed the new fuel facility in a joint statement on October 25. At ‘RAAF Base Darwin,’ Biden and Albanese presented the opening of a new fuel station as a step toward realizing “strategically significant defense announcements made at AUSMIN 2023.” 

They also stated that the new fuel plant will support [EAC] between the United States and Australia. Adding to this, the Australian Department of Defence (DoD) said on October 30 that the new fuel facility’s construction was finished in June 2023.

“The newly completed fuel facility enhances operational capabilities and support for training exercises and is a significant investment under the United States Force Posture Initiatives (USFPI) infrastructure program,” the Australian DoD said in a statement on the completion of this project.

It further added that “The project aligns with the government’s response to the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) to increase preparedness, invest in our northern infrastructure network, and deliver resilient fuel solutions.” 

It was first announced in January 2022 that work on a massive US fuel storage station in the Northern Territory of Australia is poised to begin to support military activities in the Indo-Pacific region. With a capacity of 300 million liters, this US$270-million project is known to be the largest purpose-built fuel storage facility in northern Australia.

This facility is in addition to two fuel storage tanks recently built at the Royal Air Force Base in Darwin. The United States has likely been building these facilities to aid the operation of its warplanes stationed at the Darwin military base. This is given the threat of a conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific continues to become more likely by the day.

Recently, Australia has significantly intensified cooperation with the United States, especially as tensions with China are yet to see a thaw. Australia’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) published earlier this year recommended that the Royal Australian Air Force support northern operations through air transport, air defense, surveillance, and long-range strike capability.

The Australian Defence Force’s ability to operate from Australia’s northern bases was identified as a critical priority area under the DSR recommendations. The document focused on upgrading infrastructure on northern military bases, including improvements to runway and apron capacity, fuel supply and storage, accommodation, and security.

Darwin, for one, is located in the Northern Territory of Australia and represents a very strategic asset in the Pacific Ocean amid the rising Chinese threat in the region. The Northern Territory is home to critical Australian Defense Force operational bases, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, as well as training facilities.

It makes sense, then, that the US is spending dollars millions of dollars on fuel storage. Although neither side said it explicitly, the newly completed fuel storage facility may be critical in supporting US defense operations in the region, including infrastructure for the transport, management, and storage of military-specified jet fuels.

US Military Presence In Australia

Military experts have long observed that the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps will use the facilities built in the northern port of Darwin, at Larrakeyah Defence Precinct, and Royal Australian Air Force Bases Darwin and Tindal. These projects are being funded in large part by both the Australian and US governments.

According to former Australian Assistant Defense Secretary Ross Babbage, the facilities will facilitate training for US and Australian forces to protect chains of small islands that would likely be a battlefield for any future fight with China.

To “make it extremely difficult and dangerous for Chinese operations in a crisis,” including a confrontation over Taiwan, he said in September this year. The allies are studying how to conduct dispersed operations and deploy anti-ship missiles to island chains in the Western Pacific.

For the previous decade, some 2000 Marines have been stationed in the Northern Territory in Australia. The US and Australia have been collaborating to boost the presence of US Marines on Australian soil, especially in the Northern Territory.

In November 2021, a pair of supersonic heavy B-1 Lancer bombers from a military station in the Indian Ocean flew into the area to conduct training exercises with the Royal Australian Air Force.

At the same time, the US decided to send more fighter jets to Australia, including the F-22 Raptors and F-35 stealth fighter jets as well as B2 stealth bombers, to deter potential Chinese military aggression.

Royal Australian Air Force on X: "One of our F-35A Lightning II aircraft, in the ordnance loading area at RAAF Base Darwin, during Exercise Rogue Ambush. 📸 Leading Aircraftman Adam Abela #AusAirForce #
File Image: RAAF F-35 at RAAF Base Darwin

It has been widely understood that in case of a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan, US military bases in the Pacific, like Hawaii and Guam, could be used as launchpads for US air operations. However, if the US has access to the Darwin air base and Australia decides to assist the US, this RAAF base could be used by US fighters and bombers to take off for operations in the Indo-Pacific.

China has since made moves that have deeply unsettled the Australian government, including a diplomatic blitzkrieg in the Pacific where it is trying to expand its influence and signing a security cooperation agreement with Solomon’s Island. The latter even triggered fears of a Chinese military base 2,000 kilometers away from Australia.

A B-52 Stratofortress long-range bomber at Darwin Airbase (via Twitter)

These security threats, combined with China’s rising assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, have compelled Australia to engage in more military drills with the United States and other regional allies. The deployment of foreign fighter jets has also increased in the last year.

Australian officials said in October last year that up to six B-52 aircraft might be housed at the US-funded aircraft parking apron at RAAF Base Tindal, which is located 320 kilometers southeast of Darwin. In addition, advanced fighters, bombers, and transport aircraft are often dispatched by the US to Australia to boost interoperability.

Recently, Japan’s Ministry of Defense announced its plans to deploy fighter jets to Australia on a rotational basis as soon as next fiscal year for joint exercises to counter a possible attack. The decision is a culmination of strengthening cooperation between the two states against China’s military build-up.

China’s military expansion has been a common theme among Australia’s allies. The US, for one, is also moving to upgrade airfields and bases, which would allow the US Department of Defense to quickly transfer soldiers to and from the region for drills, deployments, or a potential conflict.

The American policy of containing China makes Australia a strategically located state, leading to an exponential enhancement in cooperation between the two countries.

For instance, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last year that the United States would increase the rotational presence of air, land, and sea forces in Australia, including bomber aircraft and fighter jets. Completing fuel storage facilities could, then, be expected to aid the operation of these fighter jets.