Australia is considering procuring America’s upcoming B-21 stealth bombers in a move that would potentially restore its long-range strike capabilities against China’s growing military reach in the Pacific.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles hinted that Australia could purchase the upcoming B-21 Raider in an interview with The Australian last month.
Marles mentioned that the B-21, which is still in development, is being examined to fill requirements for Australia’s long-range strike capabilities, which it lost in 2010 following the retirement of its F-111C/G Aardvark strike aircraft fleet.
His statement came days after US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall stated that America was “willing to talk about anything that there was an interest in from the Australian perspective that we could help them with,” he was quoted as saying in Australian Aviation.
However, the Asia Pacific Defense Journal notes that the US still has sole discretion over whether it will allow Australia to procure its B-21 bomber, reflecting US reluctance to supply its allies with strategic weapons such as nuclear-powered submarines or strategic bombers.
The B-21 is a successor to the Cold War B-2 Spirit and aims to phase out the aging B-1 Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress now in US service. The fighter jet features a flying wing design to penetrate deep into defended enemy airspace.
The National Interest notes that it prioritizes stealth, penetration capabilities and prodigious payload over speed and maneuverability, with its confirmed armaments including the JASSM-ER stealth cruise missile, GBU-57 bunker buster bomb and GBU-31 JDAM satellite-guided bomb.
As noted by Bloomberg, the US is expected to deploy 100 B-21s at a cost of US$203 billion to develop, purchase and operate for 30 years.
In a seeming prelude to basing strategic bombers in Australia, this July the US deployed B-2 bombers as a part of “enhanced air cooperation through the rotational deployment of US aircraft of all types in Australia and appropriate aircraft training and exercises,” the Australian Department of Defense said to leading defense publication Janes.
The US move may reflect the capability gap caused by its decision to end its continuous bomber presence on Guam, with the US Air Force noting in April 2020 that it will no longer base strategic bombers outside the continental US.
The US Air Force decided to change its bomber force posture in favor of a “dynamic force employment” model that allows its bombers to operate from a “broader array of overseas locations”, as noted by the Air and Space Magazine.
However, a more plausible concern is that Guam has already become too vulnerable to Chinese and North Korean missile threats, which puts US strategic bombers on the island at risk.
Asia Times previously reported on Chinese and North Korean missile threats to Guam, noting that China’s DF-26 and North Korea’s Hwasong-12 have sufficient range to hit the island while noting the deficiencies of its missile defenses and the challenges in upgrading them.
Highlighting Guam’s increasing vulnerability, the US has stepped up efforts to renovate its disused airfield at Tinian as a backup air facility should Chinese and North Korean missile strikes take out Guam.
Asia Times has reported on this and noted that US military strategy in the Pacific assumes that Guam will always be ready for operations, notwithstanding its increasing vulnerability to Chinese and North Korean missile attacks.
As such, it makes sense for the US to reduce its bomber footprint on Guam and find alternative bases for its strategic bombers short of permanent basing, due to political and security concerns about US bases on its allies’ territory.
The US may thus be looking at Australia as an alternative basing area for its bombers. By selling extra B-21s to Australia, the US can also lower production costs for the aircraft, notes senior defense analyst Peter Suciu in an article for 1945.
Suciu also notes that Australia’s B-21 fleet can reduce the need for US bomber deployments from Guam, which frees the US bomber fleet for other missions such as maintaining nuclear deterrence in Europe.
Australia views its possible B-21 acquisition as a flexible deterrent option compared to fighters, submarines and land-based missiles. In an interview for Breaking Defense, former Australian Air Marshall and F-111C/G Aardvark pilot Geoff Brown says that bombers can signal, which is vital in managing crisis scenarios.
Brown notes that it is much easier to signal the threat of force using bombers than submarine-launched cruise missiles while using land-based missiles is an all-or-nothing approach. He also says that fighters have limited range and may be perceived as very offensive to the party being deterred.
Brown also emphasizes that the real advantage of bombers is that they can shape an adversary’s threat perceptions and expectations in a way that other deterrents can’t.
He notes that rotational B-2 bomber flights between the US and Australia demonstrate their utility, effectiveness and attack potential and impact adversaries’ perceptions due to their strategic weight.
Despite these arguments in favor of Australia acquiring B-21 bombers, as with its nuclear sub ambitions, Australia’s bomber plans may come up against the reality of budget limitations.
In an article for The Strategist, senior defense analyst Marcus Hellyer notes that the B-21 can get caught in a “cost-death spiral” similar to that of the B-2 and F-22, whose increasing production costs forced the reduction of projected unit numbers.
It is thus unclear if the US can afford its planned 100 B-21 units, which could mean it will have few, if any, extra bombers to spare for Australia.
Hellyer also notes that if Australia acquires 12 to 20 B-21 units, it would spend US$5-6 billion per year over five or six years, or half the sum is half of Australia’s defense capital equipment budget.
Moreover, it would compete with Australia’s other defense priorities, such as its shipbuilding program, which the Australian government has declared untouchable.
It is thus difficult to see how Australia could afford its B-21 ambitions short of a massive new splurge in defense spending, which as ever may prove unsustainable in the long run.