Fifty years on, Pine Gap should reform to better serve Australia

The Pine Gap facility, southwest of Alice Springs. Felicity Ruby/Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, CC BY-NC-SA

On December 9, 1966, the Australian and US governments signed a treaty for establishing the Pine Gap intelligence facility a few kilometres southwest of Alice Springs.

In the last 50 years, Pine Gap’s growth has burst its original security compound. There are now 33 separate antenna systems at Pine Gap, ten times the number it had when it became operational in 1970.

The beating heart of the base, the Operations Building, is now five times the size of its 1970s original, with a floor space that would cover the playing field of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Pine Gap’s primary Cold War role was to provide national level electronic intelligence on Soviet missile capabilities. This was essential for US military planning and, at a later stage, US verification of Soviet adherence to arms control agreements.

Pine Gap’s primary mission then, as now, had both defensive and offensive characteristics relating to US nuclear war planning. The satellites also intercepted signals from Soviet radars, revealing their location and technical characteristics. This information then enabled US B-52 bombers on nuclear missions to either evade or jam the radars.

Today, Pine Gap controls the much larger and more powerful electronic surveillance satellites that still do all of that for Russia, and for a great many more countries, including China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, as well as for US allies South Korea and Japan.

Also, these satellites and Pine Gap’s three more recently established other surveillance systems now provide:

  • early warning of a nuclear attack on the US

  • information about which Russian and Chinese land missile silos have not been fired, making them key targets in a nuclear retaliatory strike

  • the essential technology that makes the US-Japanese missile defence system viable

  • the ability to detect the heat blooms of small missiles and fighter aircraft

  • battlefield electronic intelligence for US-led wars in the Middle East; and

  • intelligence gathering for space warfare operations.

As a bonus during the Cold War, Pine Gap’s satellites collected valuable intelligence on the Soviet leadership from car phones and long distance phone calls over microwave towers.

Today, three of Pine Gap’s antennas point up at Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, and many other telecommunications satellites positioned above the equator, intercepting their downward transmissions on an industrial scale.

In the world of Edward Snowden and the Five Eyes network, Pine Gap has become a key node in the US global network of electronic surveillance, military and civilian, “mashing” diverse types of information in real time into intelligence pictures for combat and counter-terrorism operations.

Australia is an enthusiastic participant in every aspect of the base’s operations. Australians make up half the base’s 800-plus personnel.

More than ever, Pine Gap remains at the heart of the Australian alliance with the US. In gaining access to all areas of the base, the Australian Defence Force now has the capability — with borrowed American technology – to use some of Pine Gap’s capabilities for its own purposes. This is, though, mostly in connection with planning for coalition war with US forces.

Australia is hardwired into the US global surveillance system and military operations, with consequent legal and moral responsibilities and a default strategic position aligned to the US.

Desmond Ball, who brought Pine Gap to the notice of Australians in his classic 1980 book A Suitable Piece of Real Estate, died recently. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Ball reluctantly supported retention of Pine Gap because, despite its role in nuclear war planning, its interception of Soviet missile telemetry was essential for verifying compliance with US-Soviet arms control agreements.

Several years ago Ball announced that he no longer accepted this justification, and was appalled by the base’s role in illegal drone assassinations. There is, he noted, few serious attempts at arms control, and all nuclear weapons states are modernising their arsenals.

Whatever happens at Pine Gap, Ball argued, must be governed by tight rules and procedures. These should in turn be derived from law and the genuine defence interests of Australia, not simply as a result of being embedded in the American alliance.

In his last public interview, just before his death in October, Ball said that Pine Gap now offers Australia “everything, and nothing”. He meant that Australia’s all-areas access at Pine Gap does not meet the country’s real intelligence requirements.

After three disastrous American-led wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria, and a worrying lack of long-term and independent thinking 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.

The base has capabilities that could genuinely contribute to the defence of Australia. This would depend on the will and resolution of an Australian government capable of identifying these.

It would mean calling for the curtailing of repugnant and strategically dangerous aspects of the base’s operations – most obviously contributing to drone assassination targeting and planning for nuclear war operations. It would also mean indicating to a US administration that the base could only continue with major changes in its operations. Then reform might be conceivable – in theory.

However, given the almost comprehensive inability of recent Australian governments to separate Australian and American interests and to pursue an autonomous Australian foreign policy, the prospect of reform of Pine Gap is a distant one. It will most likely prove impossible for the foreseeable future.


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.