Aussie airbase on heightened alert during Russian exercise

Readiness raised in early Dec due to troops, aircraft in nearby Papua

DARWIN • Troops based in northern Australia were operating at "increased readiness" earlier this month as Russian bombers conducted navigation exercises close to the country, an Australian media report said.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Darwin was placed on a "short period" of heightened alert while more than 100 Russian personnel and several aircraft were stationed at the Biak Airbase in Indonesia's eastern Papua province, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) said yesterday .

During the five-day stopover, two nuclear-capable Tu-95 bombers flew their first-ever patrol mission over the South Pacific, the national broadcaster said, prompting concerns they may have been collecting valuable intelligence.

The Russian Ministry of Defence claims its strategic bombers "carried out an air alert mission over neutral waters of south Pacific Ocean", in a flight lasting more than eight hours.

In a statement to ABC, Australia's Defence Department said "the ADF (Australian Defence Force) maintains appropriate levels of readiness and posture to respond to evolving circumstances", but did not specifically refer to the Russian activity.

"There were no instances of unalerted or unscheduled foreign aircraft operating in Australian airspace during this period," the department added.

EXTENDED REACH

For the Russians to send a couple of aircraft this far down south, I think, is really proving it has got the capacity for that long-range reach.

MR PETER JENNINGS, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

It said RAAF Base Darwin was never on lockdown, but did acknowledge that "in early December, there was a brief period of increased readiness" at the facility.

Two Russian Ilyushin-76 transporters carrying 81 personnel arrived at Biak island on Dec 4, and were joined shortly after by a pair of Tu-95 bombers, bringing the total number of deployed troops to 110, ABC said.

One of Australia's leading defence experts told the broadcaster that the Defence Department would have been concerned about the ability of the long-range Russian aircraft to collect intelligence during its exercise in the region.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute's executive director, Mr Peter Jennings, said the deployment was a significant step by Moscow.

"For the Russians to send a couple of aircraft this far down south, I think, is really proving it has got the capacity for that long-range reach," Mr Jennings said, according to ABC.

"It does not surprise me in the least that our own military forces raised their alert levels in response.

"I am sure there would have been concerns about Russian intelligence gathering because they would not have come this far south without wanting to look at the one significant (United States) allied presence in this part of the world, which operates out of (RAAF Base) Darwin and RAAF Base Tindall a little further south."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline 'Aussie airbase on heightened alert during Russian exercise'. Print Edition | Subscribe