Australia is the messenger of death. It plays a unique war-fighting role in US defence arrangements.

The base at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, is one of the US’s most important bases anywhere in the world. And yet most Australians have little knowledge of it.

Traditionally, Australian governments have simply called it a relay station of some sort and not elaborated further. Australian politicians themselves don’t get told much about it for fear they could discuss it in their memoirs. 

As they said in World War II: “loose lips sink ships”. Politicians approach every issue with an open mouth.

The top secret 1947 UKUSA Agreement, between intelligence agencies in US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (the “five eyes”), was not mentioned in public until 1973 and was not published in full until 2010. No Australian politician learned about it until 1973 (which is when commentators such as myself also learned about it).

Moore’s Law (named after Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel) is based on the idea that computer power doubles every two years and halves in price every two years. Moore’s 1965 prediction has been one the most important predictions to affect our lives this century.

Moore’s Law also works in the field of US satellite intelligence. Indeed, what is probably the world’s biggest collection of computers is held by the US National Security Agency (NSA) near Washington DC.

Pine Gap was established almost 60 years ago, during the US-Soviet Cold War. It was a signals intelligence base to track the radio communications (telemetry) between airborne Soviet missiles and Soviet controllers. It was said to aid transparency and confidence-building because the US gained a clear idea of the USSR’s real missile power.

I was involved in a campaign in the 1980s to internationalise Pine Gap as part of a United Nations International Satellite Monitoring Agency (ISMA). Colonel Howard Kurtz and Rev Harriet Kurtz had campaigned on this proposal (“Satellites for Peace”) and then France took it up at the UN in 1978. Unfortunately, nothing came of that proposal.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s did not reduce the significance of Pine Gap.

On the contrary, as the decades have rolled by so its importance has increased. It is no longer just a base for the CIA in its worldwide surveillance and NSA’s detection of missile launches.

Pine Gap is part of a worldwide US satellite monitoring programme that scoops up all the data from everything: missile tests, military and civilian e-mails and phone calls. During the 1991 Gulf War, for example, Pine Gap could listen in to the individual radio conversations of Iraqi tank commanders. All the electronic communications of the readers of this newspaper are being recorded and stored.

The invention of drones has brought an extra change in war-fighting. Drones can travel long distances and then hover over potential targets waiting for the instruction to kill people. US drone strikes have killed thousands of people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. 

Some of those killed, especially targeted assassinations, may be war crimes. They may make Australia an accessory to committing war crimes.

Some of the targeting relies on the work of Pine Gap. It helps locate the targets and then monitors how much suffering was caused by the attack.

Pine Gap’s work raises several questions. It makes Australia a potential nuclear target. The destruction of Pine Gap would blind the Americans in one-eye. The US system could continue fighting but it would be at a disadvantage. 

During the Cold War some of us assumed that Pine Gap would be a Soviet target. Now the likely attackers would also include China or North Korea. For example, any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be monitored by Pine Gap, and Pine Gap would be involved in any US retaliatory measures.

An attack on Pine Gap would be both an attack on the US and yet not a direct attack on US soil. It would give the US an opportunity to think about whether it would want to respond in kind or just sue for peace.

Therefore, Pine Gap could be a casualty in a ‘limited’ nuclear war – or part of the first wave of an attack in an all-out nuclear war. It would depend on how the US decided to retaliate.

Australians need to know more about Pine Gap and the risk we are running by hosting it.

Dr Keith Suter

Global Directions

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