by Jennifer Thompson
from Website
August 1998

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,

"Nothing I 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 China.

A second generation was launched in the mid-1970s, especially designed for communications surveillance -- for example, conversations and radio communications between Soviet military commanders.

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).

New lease
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".

Gulf War
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 military infrastructure.

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 Keating government agreed last May to collaborate with the US in developing the newer version of Star Wars, developed by the US Pentagon under the Clinton 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 Australia".

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:

"Our 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 a whole".

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 century".

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.