The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap is a huge and controversial US intelligence base near Alice Springs in central Australia. Again the debate is flaring over whether or not the costs of hosting the base — most relevant being its challenge to Australian foreign policy autonomy, as well as being a possible or even likely nuclear target — are outweighed by the benefits. Pine Gap’s role in a possible Korean war raise these issues in new ways.
Apart from the multiple US–Soviet nuclear crises of 1983, there has probably never been a more important time for Australians to consider the immediate implications of hosting Pine Gap. In the event of war on the Korean peninsula, Pine Gap hardwires Australia into US military operations, whether Canberra likes it or not.
The extraordinary transformations of Pine Gap in the last two decades — in its size, range of activities, technology, organisation and most importantly in its function and role — mean this hardwiring is both literal and metaphorical.
Three of Pine Gap’s surveillance systems are relevant to US military operations on the Korean Peninsula:
- space-based interception by signals intelligence satellites of many forms of military and political electronic emissions, ranging from radio transmissions, radar signals, and the content and metadata and geo-location of communications transmissions;
- ground-based monitoring of downlinks from adversary (and allied/friendly) countries’ communications and navigation satellites, providing a wider range of interception of content and metadata and geo-location of cell phones in particular; and
- space-based infrared detection of the heat blooms of missile launches and trajectories, jet aircraft afterburners, explosions and major fires on the earth’s surface
In recent months, Pine Gap’s tasking schedules have been in overdrive contributing to updates to US Pacific Command’s and Strategic Command’s understanding of the North Korean Electronic Order of Battle — the key to shortening the attrition rate of US attacks on North Korean assets if war starts.
These three systems at Pine Gap, mashed together with data from other surveillance platforms and intelligence sources, provide the Pentagon with great quantities of data on
- the locations and characteristics of North Korean radars and anti-aircraft missile defences to allow US bombing and cruise missile attacks;
- the shifting location of the North Korean political and military leadership with a view to conducting decapitation strikes;
- the locations of major Korean People’s Army units;
- early warning of a nuclear attack on the United States;
- the essential technology that may make the US-Japanese-Korean missile defence system viable;
- knowledge of which North Korean land-based nuclear missiles have not been fired, making them key targets in a retaliatory strike, nuclear or otherwise;
- detection of the heat blooms of battlefield missiles and fighter aircraft; and
- the shifting locations of North Korean artillery batteries and tank formations threatening Seoul.
Technically, all activities conducted by the United States at Pine Gap happen with the ‘full knowledge and concurrence’ of the Australian government. Today, Australia has all-areas access at Pine Gap, and a roughly equal number of US and Australian personnel at the base work side-by-side in the same areas. Pine Gap is indeed a ‘joint facility’ in ways that the US companion station at Menwith Hill in the United Kingdom is definitely not.
But this does not change the reality that Pine Gap is a US facility to which Australia has a fairly high degree of access. It was built by the United States, is funded by the United States and can only function as part of the US global technological system.
Australian personnel at Pine Gap contribute to the implementation of both Australian and US task scheduling, but when push comes to shove, US intelligence requirements determine the scheduling and task setting of Pine Gap’s operations. The output from these systems, including the results of a great deal of processing and analysis of signals intelligence, are transmitted to the United States by optical fibre and satellite. The infrared detection satellites are operated entirely remotely from the United States, and their downlinked data moves automatically unprocessed to the United States.
In theory, an Australian government could decide that it does not want Pine Gap to be used for one or more of the roles outlined above. But the level of technological integration alone militates against this in times of crisis. This is especially clear in the case of Pine Gap’s currently irreplaceable role in cueing US, Japanese and South Korean missile defence systems to lock on to incoming missiles.
But well before the level of nuclear war, which was Pine Gap’s focus for decades, Pine Gap now plays a vital role in US real-time battlefield operations worldwide, including in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Interception of cell phones to provide geolocation data for US drone attacks is a well-known part of Pine Gap’s work, but this is just the edge of its battlefield role. Tests on the Korean Peninsula as much as twenty years ago demonstrated Pine Gap’s real-time ability to provide location data of emissions from adversary artillery batteries, enabling rapid counter-battery fire from US and South Korean forces.
Pine Gap today is a US battlefield asset, and if President Trump’s threat to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea shifts from rhetoric to policy, Australia will automatically be involved in the second Korean War, unless the Turnbull government turns away from ‘joined at the hip’ rhetoric of alliance to join the German blanket rejection of its — and Canberra’s — ally’s belligerence.
Long symbolic of the ANZUS alliance, Pine Gap’s new roles and technologies have changed the character of the alliance itself, hardening linkages and closing space for choice. Now is the time for Australia to consider its long-term strategic interests in East Asia distinct from those of the United States and to consider how to disentangle itself from the increasingly dense network of alliances — at least to the point where a choice can actually be made.
Pine Gap epitomizes, but does not exhaust, the Australian linkages to US war fighting capabilities which will restrict Australia’s ability to make an independent decision about participation in a war on the Korean peninsula. Australia was a participant in the Korean war, and along with eight other countries, remains a member of the multinational United Nations Command that reports to the UN Security Council but is controlled by the US Commander in Chief.
Command of the UNC is located in the United Nations Command (Rear) at Yokota Air Force Base in Tokyo. In 2015 and 2016, UN Command Rear was commanded by senior RAAF officers. In the event of war on the Korean peninsula, the United Nations Command will be under great pressure from the United States to commit its forces, and those of its member nations, to US Forces Korea.
Moreover, an Australian major-general has regularly been embedded as Deputy Commander of United States Army Pacific in Hawaii, with then present incumbent, Major-General Roger Noble taking up his position in March 2017.
Richard Tanter is Senior Research Associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, and teaches International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He is chair of the Australian Board of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Together with the late Desmond Ball and the Canadian SIGINT specialist Bill Robinson, he has been working on a series of technical and historical papers on Pine Gap published by the Nautilus Institute.
A shorter version of this article was published ‘North Korea necessitates a reassessment of Australia’s US intelligence bases’, East Asia Forum, 13 October 2017.