Categorised in:

Our Poisoned Heart, by Richard Tanter

The transformation of Pine Gap

Australia has two hearts, two potent symbolic centres. One is Uluru, a place of profound significance to Indigenous Australians, and of significant, if borrowed, meaning to many others, offering a promise of reconciliation, of an opening to the future. The other, Pine Gap, redolent with the symbolism of imperial power and threat, is the poisoned heart of the land, pumping toxins into the political landscape, binding us to a closed and increasingly threatening future, nationally and globally.

In Alice Springs this month a revived national peace movement fronted by the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) held a conference on the American bases, the alliance and the prospects and pathways to change. Accompanied by a week-long camp and demonstrations near the base’s now strikingly reinforced and barred gates, the gathering signalled the revival of the once powerful peace movement of the 1980s that stalled with the optimism of the end of the Cold War. Pine Gap, such a focus then, is deservedly once again a focus of national attention.

There is an old story and a new story to tell about Pine Gap. The difference between them complicates but makes more compelling the case for either drastically reforming the base’s most repugnant operations or, given the slim chance of that, closing the base altogether.

The old story is one born of the American search for strategic superiority during the Cold War, largely concerned with nuclear war. The new story continues the old one, but deepens, broadens and shifts the focus radically to the base servicing the American wars of the post–Cold War world. The new story involves enthusiastic Australian involvement in every aspect of the base’s now four separate systems of surveillance, each with close involvement in both US strategic intelligence and ongoing American military operations.

These now involve the operation of thirty-three major antenna systems at Pine Gap, about 800 staff (roughly half and half American and Australian), and operation buildings five times larger than the 1970 original, with a floor area that if laid out end to end would cover the playing field of the MCG.

The old story starts in July 1963, as Albert Wheelon, head of the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence, was reading a newspaper article about the high-risk launch of an experimental communications satellite, the first to be placed into geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO). From 36,000 kilometres above the earth’s surface the satellite would orbit the earth once a day.

Wheelon wondered whether it might be possible to build a geosynchronous satellite to intercept electronic signals passing into space from the Soviet Union. The CIA was particularly interested in two types of signal. Firstly, signals exchanged between a Soviet missile undergoing testing and its launch base would reveal the technical characteristics and capabilities of Soviet missile technology—essential for both US military planning and, at a later stage, US verification of Soviet adherence to arms-control agreements. Secondly, signals from Soviet radars, positioned all around the country, would reveal their location and technical characteristics, enabling US B-52 bombers on nuclear missions to attack the Soviet Union to either evade or jam the radars. Pine Gap’s primary mission then, as now, had both defensive and offensive characteristics relating to US nuclear war-planning.

The technical difficulties and requirements were prodigious, the likely cost almost prohibitive, leading to bitter budgetary and fierce turf wars between the CIA and the US Air Force. Wheelon and his CIA team won the turf wars, and commenced work on what became the Rhyolite GEO signals intelligence satellite project.

Three years later, Wheelon’s team was looking for a suitable location for the ground station that would command and control the satellites to eventually be placed over the Equator above the western Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. One key technical requirement ruled out placing the ground station on the usual preferred locations for such facilities—small islands whose populations could be removed, such as Kwajalein (or a little later, Diego Garcia), or given no choice but to accept them, such as Guam. The downlink beam from the satellite would be very narrow, but by the time it reached the earth’s surface 36,000 kilometres away it would be some 160 kilometres in diameter. And the need to minimise weight in the early satellites meant that the downlink would have to be unencrypted. The centre of Australia was just the place, and highly secret negotiations commenced in mid-1965.

In mid-1966, the actual site, at what is now the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, was chosen from a group of three in the Alice Springs area. Wheelon and two colleagues accompanied Bob Mathams, then head of the Scientific Intelligence Group in the Australian Defence Department’s Joint Intelligence Bureau. Mathams, Wheelon and the other two CIA scientists celebrated at the beautiful site by breaking open a case of Australian red wine. Meanwhile in Canberra three agreements were being finalised. The first was a general document released to the public signed in December 1966, subsequently extended on three occasions, until now, half a century later, it remains in force indefinitely until terminated by either party on three years’ notice. A secret implementing agreement served as cover for a second, more substantial, agreement between the Australian Defence Department and the CIA, written for the most part by the CIA.

The CIA-controlled Pine Gap facility in this old story grew continuously from the time it began operation in 1970 with just three parabolic dish antennas in radomes, which collected missile telemetry, radar signals and the like, as well as communications between the Soviet (and Chinese and North Vietnamese) political and military leaderships.

A last part of the old story, though it happens a little later, involves the Nurrungar ground station for US early-warning satellites built around the same time near Woomera in South Australia. Nurrungar also commanded, controlled and downlinked data from US satellites in geosynchronous orbit staring down at similar regions of the earth. These Defense Satellite Program (DSP) satellites carried large infrared telescopes searching for the heat bloom of intercontinental missiles being launched in attack on the United States—providing early warning of thirty minutes to Armageddon. As with Pine Gap then, as now, defensive and offensive functions fused, with the same DSP satellites telling Pentagon planners contemplating a response to a Soviet attack which missile silos were now empty, and which remained to be attacked with the next salvo of American missiles. In 1999, Nurrungar was closed and a new compound on the western edge of Pine Gap constructed as the site for a relay ground station for the ageing DSP constellation and their successors, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites, all operated remotely from Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado.

The new story, from the 1990s onwards, was driven by a transfer of control from the CIA to the National Reconnaissance Office and a dominant role for the military, a shift in US strategic priorities towards wars of intervention and counter-terrorism, new technologies of surveillance and intelligence fusion, closely integrating Pine Gap into a global network. It is also a story of Australian enthusiasm to use access to the extraordinary capabilities of the American base.

Today there are four distinct systems of surveillance operating at Pine Gap.

The principal function of Pine Gap remains the ground station for three US Advanced Orion satellites sitting above Indonesia and the Indian Ocean. They collect a wide range and enormous volume of electronic transmissions from almost all of the earth’s surface―from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the western edge of Africa―covering all regions of current US military interest. The Advanced Orion satellites, with their 100-metre-plus main antenna and a forest of small ones, collect and downlink to Pine Gap missile telemetry (everybody’s) and radars (Russia’s, China’s, and North Korea’s most significantly). But they also collect and downlink to Pine Gap a wide range of other transmissions. Most notoriously, Pine Gap receives and passes on to military command and the targeting machine of US-Airforce and CIA-armed drones and special-operations teams, the content and location of cell-phone and satellite-phone intercepts from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and of persons of interest in counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries with which the US—and Australia—are not legally at war.

The second system at Pine Gap also concerns interception of communications, but from the ground looking up―towards hundreds of communications satellites (COMSAT in Pentagon-speak) and a range of foreign powers’ military and civil satellites (FORNSAT). The intercepts again include cell and satellite communications, internet-by-satellite, and a range of more directly military transmissions from Russian and Chinese satellites. This began with two large parabolic dishes in radomes built in 1999 that could focus on transmissions from one or two foreign satellites at a time. Now a radical Torus multibeam antenna, constructed in 2008, executes this mission on an industrial scale, monitoring thirty-five or more satellites at a time across 70 degrees of longitude, each with scores of transponders and channels, and collaborating with five other US-controlled Torus antennas in stations from Britain to the Middle East to New Zealand. This is the world of Edward Snowden and automated mass, worldwide surveillance under the doctrine, which the Torus antennas facilitate, of ‘Collect It All’.

The third system at Pine Gap consists of the ground station for the powerful new infrared sensors on two upgraded DSP satellites and one new SBIRS satellite. Data from these sensors is fed from Pine Gap to US Strategic Command, for early-warning and nuclear-targeting purposes, and to Air Force Space Command, for integration into combined US and Japanese missile-defence systems. These critically depend on ‘cueing’ from Pine Gap in order to have a chance of finding their targets in flight in space over the Pacific. Missile defence, sometimes called a ‘missile shield to stop America being nuked’, turns out, when possessed by only one side of a nuclear deterrence dyad, to be anything but defensive and stabilising. China correctly points out that US–Japanese missile defence, should it work as advertised, promises to vitiate China’s ‘minimum means of retaliation’ to an attack by America’s 6000 or so nuclear weapons, and has led China to modernise, and somewhat expand, its current 250 to 300 nuclear weapons in a classic action-reaction armament cycle. Moreover the data from the highly sensitive infrared sensors, like Pine Gap signals intelligence, now contributes to and is distributed not only to the national strategic level of US planning but also to the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

The fourth system, just newly discovered by researchers, is the role of three small, experimental Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellites in not only missile defence but also what the Pentagon calls Space Situational Awareness: locating, characterising and surveilling adversary satellites as a prerequisite for anti-satellite space warfare.

Through its participation in and acquiescence to all of these activities, the Australian Defence Force is both literally and institutionally hard-wired into the US global surveillance system and military operations, with consequent legal and moral responsibilities. This is most obviously the case through its critical contributions to both nuclear war-planning and drone assassinations. Pine Gap remains, even in the eyes of the Defence Department, a likely Russian or Chinese nuclear-missile target in the event of major war with the United States. The Australian Defence Force now has the capability—with borrowed American technology—to use some of Pine Gap’s capabilities for its own purposes, though, it has to be said, mostly in connection with planning for coalition war with US forces. As Desmond Ball said recently, Pine Gap now offers Australia everything, and nothing.

The ties that bind now bind Australia much more than in the past to a default position aligned to the United States. After three disastrous American-led wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria, and when thinking carefully about China, there are good strategic reasons for understanding that those moments when Australian and US interests do not align are more common and more compelling than Australian governments are willing to consider.

This leaves the question of what is to be done. If there are capabilities at Pine Gap that are of genuinely high value to the defence of Australia, there may be a case for an Australian government requesting that the United States retain those, and such other functions as do not violate international law (knowing well the gap between law and morality), and prepare the way for nuclear Armageddon, and remove the rest. However, given that Australian governments have little by way of a record of speaking truth to power, it is likely that the only answer is to close the base.

The arms-control argument for Pine Gap’s retention is now vitiated by both politics—there is precious little arms control on the US agenda—and by technology. The technological requirement to host the Pine Gap base has passed. All the data downlinked from the now very large satellites is today encrypted and so could be downlinked elsewhere with no loss to US national security. Moreover, in another technological revolution, satellite data downlinked to Pine Gap is capable of being passed through relay satellites directly to the United States.

Let us hope that the new stirrings towards peace activism and emerging, more general critical interest in the role of Pine Gap will bring these issues to the fore and place our government on notice.

Note: This article draws on research papers by Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson, Richard Tanter and other colleagues published by the Nautilus Institute as The Pine Gap Project: <>.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>