Sydney — American B-52 bombers have begun landing in Australia's Northern Territory, touching off a fierce Australian controversy about defense ties with the United States.
The bombers' presence in Australia is in part a response to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's encouragement of a stronger US role in the Indian Ocean after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But the Labor Party complains that the B- 52s, which began flying into the Royal Australian Air Force base at Darwin June 19, will make Australia a likely target for nuclear attack if the United States becomes involved in war.
A memorandum from US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. says the B-52s are "unarmed and will carry no bombs," but the formal agreement that allows the flights is too general, Labor Party spokesmen say. The agreement does not state specifically that the planes will be unarmed.
The US operates several defense-related facilities in Australia. There are satellite tracking stations at Pine Gap in the Northern territory and Nurrungar in South Australia, and a naval communications station in Western Australia.
Because Australians have been told little about the functions of these facilities, speculation has grown that they are key parts of the US defense system.
Dribbles of information from US technical journals, the Congressional Record, and other sources suggest the facilities do have a major defense role. The naval communications station, for example, reportedly has been used for communicating with missile-carrying Polaris submarines.
Prime Minister Fraser's government says Labor's objections to the B-52s is simply anti-US sentiment.
They point out that nuclear weapons are not carried on the types of flights going in and of Darwin. They note that B- 52 bomb bays have been replaced by sophisticated photographic and reconnaissance equipment.
The US has told Australian officials that the flights are "for sea surveillance in the Indian Ocean and for navigation- training purposes," and that Australia's approval "shall be obtained before the facilities used in support of any other category of operations."
Labor politicians ask why this was not stated explicitly by the US in its agreement with Australia. Government officials respond that the US does not tell other allies whether ships and aircraft in their territory carry nuclear weapons. For this reason, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs regards the Haig memorandum as a major concession.
Parliament discovered that it was Australia, rather than the US, that started discussions leading to the agreement to use Darwin as a B-52 base. According to Defense Minister James Killen, the government, in effect, asked its ally, "How can we help?" after the Afghan invasion.
The Fraser government also offered the US use of naval base in Western Australia. The US has not as yet accepted.
A recent poll of Australian opinion on the B-52 issue indicates Australians are almost evenly divided: 42 percent against US use of Darwin as a B-52 base, 40 percent in favor, and 18 percent undecided.
But since the end of the Vietnam war, there has been a wide divergence of opinion in Australia over whether the country -- which sent troops to fight beside Americans against the Viet Cong -- should tighten or loosen its defense ties with the US.
Opponents of tighter links generally suggest too close an alignment with the US will make Australia a more likely target for attack.
Supporters of retaining -- or tightening -- US links argue that Australia, which does not have a major defense capability of its own, would be effectively defended without American help.