The secret antennas of US spy base Pine Gap

Pine Gap in the NT is one of the world's biggest US spy bases.

Under the cover of thick clouds and blinding sun, a drone assignation takes place in the Middle East. Interception of internet messages leads US authorities to a 16-year-old Anonymous group member.

An engine plume signifies the position of refugees on the high seas from Asia. A National Security Agency (NSA) “worm-bot” is sent to an Iranian nuclear facility. An intercepted smartphone message leads to the shutdown of a New York City protest. A nuclear test in North Korea is detected before launch. Spillover chatter from Chinese military construction firms pinpoints the location of South China Sea armaments.

According to a recent policy report by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, The Antennas of Pine Gap, the Australian government is far more involved in these controversial events than our distant, sunny disposition would have us believe.

Pine Gap, a multi-purpose mega-intelligence centre in the Northern Territory, taps phones, collects metadata, orders drone strikes, guides bombs, facilitates arrests and monitors citizens movements.

More troublingly, the report indicates Pine Gap is the key to the $10 trillion missile defence system with the eight story high Torus multi-beam antenna. The facility is also expediting the internet arms race where so-called “internet nukes” have the potential to blackout the internet.

Pine Gap has always been laden in secrecy. Its giant golf ball-like radars are placed in red desert seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But authors Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson and Richard Tanter — professors at ANU and Melbourne University — have brought the base into the light. The report is a treasure trove of professional photos, graphical analysis and comparative statistics, which rival any WikiLeaks data-dump.

The respected authors say, given the “official evasion and secrecy,” combined with “fantasy-laden realms of space and war, nuclear threat, and most recently, the provision of targeting data for US drone assassinations, it is hardly surprising that the antennas of Pine Gap are powerful political symbols.”

The report chronicles how what began in 1967 as one Alice Springs radio antenna had morphed into an installation of disco-like “golf ball” Radoms by the 1970s.

Tellingly, a grass tennis court and fresh water pool appeared during the Reaganist '80s as colossal Cold War tracking Radoms hovered over a vast array of “Star Wars” technology. The demise of the Soviet Union and the end of US “ownership” heralded the '90s internet era. A critical mass of sophisticated big data technology appeared and, curiously, a green football field.

War on terror spendathons bloomed a khaki-green oasis in the desert, with 100 US officers, 35 golf ball Radoms and 45 known antennas, including the Torus multi-beam antenna.

As exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowdon, the Torus system is a monolithic way to snatch all of the world's communications. In 2010 Australia even managed to launch six communications satellites valued at $1 billion — long before the NBN. If only the NBN were so lucky.

For all the usual national interest and realpolitik justification for the escalation, Tanter says that Pine Gap is psychological in nature. It rests on “the networked alliance between Australia and the US”, which, “trades off the risks of hosting the bases against the hope that their unique role will make the defence of Australia essential to the US.”

In policy terms, Pine Gap counterbalances the possibility of the US abandoning Australia during a major war. Putting aside the well-known “abonnement issue”, psychologically ingrained by the British experience, the report analyses a range of security issues related to the militarisation of Pine Gap.

Sovereignty concerns obviously loom large as Australia votes on war in the Westminster system. Pine Gap is identified by the Nautilus Institute as one of the key push—pull factors that drove Australia into the last four US wars.

Equally inauspicious is a sociocultural transformation underway with both governments increasingly following the US ideology of Networked Swarming Warfare (NSW) or Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

Australia officially does not sanction NSW activities, such as extraordinary rendition, torture and drone assignations; but as the report underscores, drone assignations are Pine Gap's bread and butter. Australia is now quite comfortable using US-style techniques, as demonstrated by the eavesdropping on the Indonesian president via Pine Gap and the call for drone hits on Indonesian terrorist groups.

Incongruously, the angst in diplomatic and political circles is if the Australian parliament rejects a future Iraqi, Syrian or even Chinese misadventure the US will simply suspend Pine Gap access. Loss of “all-seeing and all-knowing power” renders the political mainstream subject to a messy withdrawal from the addiction of high-tech spying — akin to an adolescent withdrawing from social media.

One overlooked danger is that sites like Pine Gap can help create an outdated defence force while still spending 2.5% of GDP or nearly $500 billion in arms investment to appease the US. In short, Australia commits billions of dollars to obsolete hardware but hedges its bets that Pine Gap will provide a potent insurance policy.

Due to Pine Gap, China and Russia view Australia as virtually a US base, or a client state without an independent foreign policy. Most tellingly Pine Gap, 18 kilometres from Alice Springs, is known officially as a nuclear target. Declassified documents from former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke contain the estimated blast zones and the actual impact maps.

With the release of a mainstream policy report, Pine Gap is even more out in the open. As Tanner said: “The ability to test government claims in informed public debates amounts to a necessary — and presently missing — condition of Australian democracy.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of the high-tech arms race on Australian soil continues unabated with the installation of more sophisticated spy technology at Darwin and in two places in West Australia.

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