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U.S. airmen to step up rotations in Australia

Nov. 18, 2012 - 10:29AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 18, 2012 - 10:29AM  |  
A B-52 taxis after touching down at RAAF Base Darwin, Australia, in August as part of a joint training mission. One of the goals of the mission was to work out details for future rotational visits to RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal.
A B-52 taxis after touching down at RAAF Base Darwin, Australia, in August as part of a joint training mission. One of the goals of the mission was to work out details for future rotational visits to RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal. (Air Force)
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More airmen could be headed Down Under following new agreements by the U.S. and Australian defense departments, with U.S. planes headed to Australian airfields and an Air Force space radar on the way to the Outback.

In a joint announcement Nov. 14 in Perth, Australia, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the department is looking at increased Air Force rotations throughout Northern Australia as a way to build on recent exercises and other deployments, such as a U.S. Marine Corps detachment setting up in the country.

"We agreed to continue to build on that success, and we will," Panetta said. "We also agreed to move forward with all due deliberate speed in the further implementation of this important initiative. … We've made clear that one of our key focuses is to rebalance the Pacific. We simply would not be able to do that effectively without allies like Australia."

Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith said his country is commissioning a study to look at increased U.S. access to airfields in the country's Northern Territory — RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal.

U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman Maj. Cathy Wilkinson said the Pentagon is still working out details of future Air Force rotations and could not provide information about the number of airmen or airframes involved and when they might be sent to Australia.

Panetta also announced that the Air Force C-band space surveillance radar will move from Antigua, West Indies, to Western Australia in 2014. The system tracks space assets and debris and will be the first such radar in the Southern Hemisphere, allowing it to keep closer track of Chinese space launches. The relocation would cost about $30 million, and up to $10 million to operate each year.

In addition to the radar, Australia will host a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency space surveillance telescope, which has been stationed in New Mexico, Panetta announced.

The Air Force has held large-scale exercises in Australia regularly, the most recent of which involved a B-52 from the 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, Minot Air Force Base, N.D. The squadron trained for two weeks in August as the Air Force's lone flying unit in Exercise Pitch Black 12, a multinational air exercise that also included the Marine Corps. As part of the exercise, the bombers flew offensive and defensive counter-air missions from Darwin and Tindal.

After the exercise, the B-52 and a KC-135 landed at Darwin for training. The aircrews conducted simulated ordnance drops over the Delamere Training Range and practiced aerial refueling there. One of the goals of the training mission was to work out details for future rotational deployments to Darwin and Tindal, according to an Air Force news release.

Last year, Air Force fighters and tankers participated in the large-scale bilateral training exercise called Talisman Sabre, which involved 14,000 troops from all branches of the U.S. military.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the American presence will be rotational.

"We're not looking at planting a flag and opening a base," Dempsey said. "There will be a handful of people who will probably be there to keep the base warm, but not many."

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