by Jennifer Thompson
Senator Gareth Evans’ comments to the
Australian-American Association on November 21 leave no doubt about
the Labor government’s support for the continued presence of joint
Australian-US spy bases here. He said,
"The threat of superpower
nuclear confrontation may have passed, but the need for [US bases,
Pine Gap and Nurrungar] unequivocally remains".
There is plenty of other evidence which spells out the government’s
position in favor of the US bases and a continued military --
including nuclear -- alliance with the US. Speaking after his
presentation to the International Court of Justice hearing on the
legality of nuclear weapons on October 30, Evans said,
have said today should be regarded as impacting on any alliance
relationship we have with the US or anyone else".
Evans argues that the bases are particularly important post-Cold War
for arms control verification -- in this case the commitments in a
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which may be signed next year.
Yet Pine Gap’s arms treaty verification role is estimated to be as
little as 0.3% of its activity. According to bases expert and ANU
academic Des Ball,
"The undeniable fact is that
Pine Gap is
concerned with espionage", and the information gathered "undeniably enhance[s] US strategic nuclear war-fighting capabilities".
Pine Gap, North-West Cape,
Nurrungar (click image left) and around 30 other sites make
up the "joint US-Australia" facilities. Pine Gap is the most
important installation and one of the largest satellite ground
control stations in the world. It controls a small number of
geostationary signals intelligence satellites, "the most secret of
all US intelligence collection satellites".
Eavesdropping in space
In the 1960s, there was much technical expansion of electronic
communications in space. Satellites equipped with powerful receivers
were strategically positioned to eavesdrop on selected
communications. The satellites act as giant microphones which can
accurately pick up even minor transmissions and rebroadcast them to
receiving stations (such as Pine Gap) on earth, which then process
or redirect the signals.
The first generation of satellites, launched in 1970 the year Pine
Gap became operational, were designed to spy on Soviet missile
developments and for general espionage in Asia. They were used
during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, in Vietnam, and later to spy on
A second generation was launched in the mid-1970s, especially
designed for communications surveillance -- for example,
conversations and radio communications between Soviet military
The development of third generation satellites, launched in 1978,
was stepped-up after the 1979 fall of the Shah forced the closure of
US eavesdropping bases in Iran.
A fourth generation, Magnum, was launched on the space shuttle
Discovery in January 1985. These were huge receivers designed to
pick up information on Soviet missile tests, and military and
diplomatic communications. From 1983, Pine Gap was expanded to
receive the increased volume of signals from these satellites.
Nurrungar was established in 1971 as a US military communications
base. Its main role is to monitor nuclear explosions and missile
launch activity and convey the information to the US. It is the main
overseas station for the US Defense Support Program (DSP).
In 1988 a new 10-year lease for the US facilities was signed by then
Prime Minister Bob Hawke, without parliamentary, caucus, cabinet,
let alone public discussion. The agreement specified a three-year
notification period which required the Australian government to give
notice in 1995 to close both Nurrungar and Pine Gap in 1998, when
the leases come up for renewal.
When the agreement was renewed in 1988, Australia arranged to have
greater access to the information collected by the bases. The
notification period was also increased due to the "specific benefits
to Australia of long-term access to their capabilities", said Hawke.
Hawke and defense minister Beazley then admitted what they had
previously denied -- that the bases are used to collect electronic
intelligence not simple "communications". Beazley said the bases
"serve Australian interests" by giving Australia access "to
information essential to our defense requirements". Part of the
rationale for signing the renewal agreements was the ability to
collect secret intelligence on countries such as Indonesia (now an
Australian co-conspirator to steal oil from the Timor Gap).
Australian personnel was increased and an Australian deputy
commander appointed at each base. The significance of these changes
was aptly expressed by two November 1988 Financial Review headlines:
"Bases now spy for Australia" and "Bases now have spying role in
South East Asia".
The increased Australian role in the bases did not change their
espionage and war-fighting functions. In the Australian Anti-Bases
Campaign Coalition (AABCC) submission to the 1991 international
Commission of Inquiry into the Gulf War, Hannah Middleton detailed
the role the bases had played.
Middleton linked the Australian contribution to the Western-led
alliance in the Gulf War to the numerous violations of international
conventions governing the conduct of war.
Greater attention was given to Nurrungar, said Middleton, because
the DSP operations could be portrayed as defensive by giving early
warning of Iraqi SCUD missile launches against Israeli and Saudi/US
targets. Nurrungar also played an offensive role by giving data on
activities in the Gulf area that allowed the Western alliance to
target its massive bombing raids.
The AABCC submission also documents how "North West Cape, as a naval
communications base, was locked into the US command and
communications structures in the Gulf, relaying signals to surface
vessels and submarines", and that operations at Pine Gap helped make
the massive US offensive against Iraq possible. Pine Gap intercepted
electronic and radio signals from the Iraqi forces and provided
information on Iraqi air and ground defenses, troop deployments and
During a May 1992 visit, US defense secretary Dick Cheney confirmed
that the US bases in Australia had been used in the Gulf War. US
Chief of Staff during the war, Colin Powell, also recently admitted
that he ordered detailed planning for a nuclear strike against Iraq.
The bases were also, according to Cheney, to play a role in the
Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars". The
agreed last May to collaborate with the US in developing the newer
version of Star Wars, developed by the US Pentagon under the
administration. The Theatre Defense Missile project, as it is
called, threatens the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and has
sparked concern about a new nuclear arms race.
The federal government’s 1994 defense White Paper reaffirms support
for both the US nuclear weapons and the joint role of policing Asia
and the Pacific to secure Australian and US strategic and economic
interests. Despite the Keating government’s professed commitment to
nuclear disarmament, the White Paper states:
"We will continue to
support the maintenance by the US of a nuclear capability adequate
to ensure that it can deter nuclear threats against allies like
Walden Bello, in People and Power in the Pacific: The Struggle for
the Post-Cold War Order, notes the Australian government’s role in
steering the South Pacific Forum to set up a nuclear-free zone that
doesn’t exclude existing US and Australian nuclear involvement in
the region. He concludes that Australia has fostered economic
dependency and subordinated the interests of the Pacific Island
states to its own interests, including its alliance with the US.
His conclusions are reflected in the government’s White Paper:
alliance with the US helps to sustain the US engagement in [Asia and
the Pacific] which supports our interests and those of the region as
The White Paper says that the government will continue to operate
the US bases; Nurrungar and North West Cape may be phased out around
the end of the century, but it "expects that Pine Gap will remain a
central element of our cooperation with the US well into the next
The current agreements entrench Australia in US preparations to
fight a nuclear or conventional war, and expand Australian
facilities for spying on Asian countries. They reflect the
Australian and US governments’ mutual interest in a military --
including nuclear -- alliance to defend their imperialist interests,
especially in Asia and the Pacific. If the Keating government was
serious about peace and human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, not
to mention nuclear disarmament, it would order the US bases out now.