US bombers to train in Australia

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

In a joint agreement by Australia and the United States, the U.S. Air Force will begin regular strategic bomber aircraft training in the Northern Territory early next year. At the recent high-level AUSMIN talks between the U.S. and Australia it was announced that the strategic bomber training program would involve B-52 and B-1 bombers and the B-2 stealth aircraft.

Under the new arrangements aircraft would fly direct from the United States for bombing operations at the Delamere Air Weapons Range situated about 130km south-west of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Delamere is a 211,000ha bombing range used regularly by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) for dropping live weapons. The Darwin RAAF base would also be available for the bombers to land and refuel if necessary. The planes will fly to the Northern Territory from the U.S. Pacific Island base of Guam.

A B-52 Stratofortress drops live ordnance over Nevada on May 12 2005 during an Air Force firepower demo - (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Support

Defence Minister Robert Hill says Australia is helping in the rebalancing of America's military forces in Asia. Senator Hill said strategic bomber training had been conducted some time ago and that the U.S. had now asked Australia whether it could be resumed.

"We have said we are happy to assist," Senator Hill told reporters. Mr Hill said some of the aircraft may not even touch down in Australia, while others will land at the Darwin RAAF base.

The bombers will fly from the major US base on the Pacific island of Guam. "It may be aircraft that come down to Australia from a considerable distance and use our bombing ranges and then return without landing," he said. "There will also be occasions when the aircraft will land and utilise facilities at Darwin. We think it's just another example in which we can be helpful to our ally".

Labor's opposition defence spokesman, Robert McClelland, also supports the program. "It's very important to our long-term security that we support the United States alliance as a partner - not being dictated to in anyway - but as a partner," he said. "It is quite reasonable we provide a significant resource we have in Australia, which is open space, to develop the technologies and the skills."

Concerns

But the Australian Greens are outraged by the project, saying there has been no consultation in the Territory. "The Australian Government more and more is allowing the Americans to view this country as the 51st state," Greens leader Senator Bob Brown said.

The mayor of Katherine, Anne Shepherd, also has serious concerns about the plan. "I know of the other accidents that have happened there when the Americans were training," Ms Shepherd said.

In August this year, A U.S. Marine Corps fighter jet dropped a bomb and damaged a building in an accident. The bomb, dropped by an F/A-18 Hornet, exploded near a control tower and damaged facilities at Delamere Air Weapons Range - attached to the RAAF Base Tindal near Katherine.

At the time, Prime Minister John Howard said: "Things like this will always happen; we hope not very frequently and we hope not any more dangerously," he told Melbourne Radio 3AW in August. "But the idea that you can conduct any kind of military exercise without some kind of potential for mishap is unrealistic."

Ms Shepherd is also worried about the possible use of depleted uranium. "I know that they use the depleted uranium on the warheads for added penetration ... and the weapons can penetrate much more easily with the depleted uranium and I'd be quite concerned if they use those kind of weapons," she said.

The Northern Territory Environment Center says it is disgusted by the announcement. Co-ordinator Peter Robertson is alarmed about the location of the training. "Only a matter of 100 kilometres or so from one of the proposed nuclear waste dump sites near Katherine, and it would be extraordinarily alarming and ironic if an American B-52 bomber dropped a live bomb on top of the Commonwealth's nuclear waste dump," he said.

Concerns have also been raised about the environmental impact of the training program. Australia and the United States have agreed to work towards world's best practice in environmental management for the combined military activities.

But Mr Robertson says world's best practice is simply to stop doing it. "Not to do it in a way that puts at risk communities, the environment... I mean the notion that there are clean green bombs that can be rained down on the Northern Territory, or any other part of the world, is an absolute nonsense," he said.

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