Dangerous liaisons: America’s huge, little-known military footprint in Australia. Part 1

Nov 11, 2021
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More than ever, Australia is a suitable piece of real estate for the US espionage and war-gaming. A detailed analysis by Richard Tanter.

Commitment to the maintenance of the American alliance has consistently overwhelmed any other measure of Australian national or strategic interest. Two material elements of the wider impact of the US alliance on Australian defence and foreign policy are the habit of participation in US wars and silent acceptance of more ‘’joint’’ bases.

Australia’s numerous wars of alliance since 1945 have been detrimental to Australian national interests. And today, US military and intelligence agencies have access to more than 50 Australian defence facilities. Some are huge, some tiny. But apart from being important to the US in both cases, the common factor is the lack of robust scrutiny of the implications of this increasing access for Australian national interests.

Consequences of repeated alliance-generated ADF deployments

Australian wars since Federation have almost always been, with very few exceptions, alliance wars far from home. Apart from the two World Wars, most have ended in defeat, stalemate, or disgrace — with an apparent lack of awareness of that frequent fate masked by Defence censorship and a culture of military triumphalism of being on the winning side in two world wars.

Reality and its horrors only momentarily breaks through with footage of the last helicopters out of Saigon or the tiny figure of a desperate Afghan civilian falling from one of the last US aircraft out of Kabul.

Since the end of World War II, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been deployed in the following US wars:

  • Korean War, 1950-53
  • Vietnam War, 1962-73
  • Gulf War, 1990-91
  • Afghanistan War, 2001-21
  • Iraq War I, 2003-09
  • Iraq War 2, 2014-present
  • Syria, 2015-18
  • Yemen (naval), 2014-present

The recent exceptions in regions close to Australia — the 2006 intervention in East Timor and RAMSI in the Solomon Islands — were ”stabilisation operations” – a term redolent with the mixed motives of Australian governments towards those countries. Otherwise, our wars are all, one way or another, wars for empire. None of the alliance deployments of Australian forces over the past seven decades was a response to primary or even second order Australian strategic interests.

The Afghanistan deployment, the only war to be formally justified under Australia’s ANZUS Treaty obligations, began in what might have been understandable in the face of US political force majeure. The rage of the United States after the 9/11 attacks, irrational and misplaced though it was, was probably politically unstoppable in the short term. The invasion of Afghanistan that followed achieved its primary objective — destroying the al-Qaeda training camps and, for good measure, the Taliban government — in less than half a year. Yet for two decades Australian governments enthusiastically supported the United Nations-auspiced war that followed in one of Asia’s poorest countries.

Afghanistan, the most intense Australian war in the past half century, has involved a high tempo of operations that led to an extraordinary number of rotations of ADF personnel, in many cases repeatedly. Navy frigates and other vessels deployed to the western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf region are now past their 60th six-month rotation.

The fundamental issue to assess is whether the Australian prosecution of these wars advanced or enhanced national interests. A generation after withdrawal from Vietnam, it became customary in government circles to talk of the Vietnam commitment as a ”mistake”. But these apparent ”admissions of error” carried neither any measure of apology to Australian veterans and the Vietnamese people nor serious discussion of how that ”mistake” came to be made.

After the initial invasion period wiping out the al-Qaeda training camps, the protracted Afghanistan deployment came to be justified by successive governments as having three objectives: to build democracy in Afghanistan, to end the threat of resurgent terrorism, and to prevent the country falling into a narco-economy.

All three aims failed early and clearly — the last two in fact generating ever more counterproductive consequences in terms of recruiting for regional terrorism and a shift from peasant opium production to transnational industrial-scale production and export of heroin. Despite the real state of the Afghanistan war being evident to seasoned US strategic observers, there was no Australian move to then reassess whether participation in the war had any conceivable contribution to Australia’s national interest — other that of satisfying the US government’s notions of ”burden sharing”. Commitment to the maintenance of the alliance for its own sake overwhelmed any other measure of Australian national or strategic interest.

Deepening US access to more Australian military and intelligence bases

In recent years successive Australian governments have been insistent on the joint character of any co-operative activity within Australia with US military forces and intelligence agencies. For example, the ratification of the 2008 treaty concerning US access to the once-again-joint North West Cape facility confirmed that the treaty ”includes a requirement that US use of the station be in accordance with the Australian government’s policy of full knowledge and concurrence.’’

There is good reason to doubt the seriousness of that often repeated claim to full knowledge and concurrence of US military and intelligence facilities in Australia. This was most evident in the failure in 1997 of the Howard government’s National Security Committee (NSC)to properly scrutinise the risks to Australia acquiescing to the US request to establish a new facility at Pine Gap. Following the announcement of the Nurrungar ground station for US early warning satellites, the US sought to build a Relay Ground Station at Pine Gap. While governments under prime ministers Fraser, Hawke and Keating had recognised the risk of nuclear attack on Nurrungar — a risk that would attend the proposed Relay Ground Station, and still does — the 1997 cabinet submission and accompanying papers show no evidence that the NSC discussed that risk or even that the advisers in the room brought the matter to the attention of busy ministers.

After reading the 1997 cabinet documents, the late Paul Barratt, former secretary of defence, remarked:

”Knowledge relating to the two omissions you note in the paper would have been present in the [NSC] room, but as there is no sign that they were referenced in the Cabinet submission, I doubt that anyone would have volunteered these aspects in the discussions — the advisers tend to speak when they are spoken to. This raises the question of whether Defence itself, either by accident or design, failed to bring all the relevant issues to the notice of NSC.’’

How joint are the joint facilities?

Another Australian government mantra, usually from defence ministers, has been that ”there are no US bases in this country’’.

This is not correct. This is not just a matter of a politician being economical with the truth, but a serious misrepresentation of strategic reality, which is in fact one of fundamental and inherent asymmetrical co-operation between the United States and Australia.

Of course, there are differences of degree as to which military and intelligence bases on Australian soil can be appropriately regarded as ‘‘joint” facilities. True, there are degrees of ‘’jointness’’ in an asymmetrical alliance.

The Australian government has only specifically identified three bases as joint facilities: the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap near Alice Springs, the US Air Force-operated nuclear detonation seismic monitoring network at the Joint Geological and Geophysical Research Station in Alice Springs, and the HANDS (High Accuracy Network Determination System) Ground Station Learmonth on North West Cape.

The Australian government has never provided a full and accurate list of joint facilities, but the statements identifying the three just mentioned imply that there are others, as is certainly the case.

In part, this is a matter of in what sense these base are joint. In the well-known cases of the major joint facilities such as Pine Gap, North West Cape, and the recently major expansion of the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena near Geraldton, it remains reasonable to say that if the facility was built by the US, paid for by the US, and can only operate effectively as part of the US globally distributed technological system, then it is best to regard those as US facilities to which Australia has a greater or lesser degree of access.

In some cases, there is a distinction between the nominal ”joint management’’ of a facility and the actual control by the US. A case in point is the Joint Geological and Geophysical Research Station (JGGRS). Established in great secrecy in 1955 by the US Air Force to detect the seismic indicators of nuclear test detonations, the JGGRS was made a joint facility under the Fraser government. For the four decades since the Alice Springs seismic station has been nominally jointly managed by Geoscience Australia together with the US Air Force’s secretive Air Force Technical Applications Agency (AFTAC), which operates the worldwide United States Atomic Energy Detection System.

In fact, Geoscience Australia has no role in operations at the seismic station, provides no capital or operating budget, and has no permanent staff onsite. US Air Force personnel from AFTAC’s Detachment 421 run and maintain the station, just as they have since 1956. The seismic data from the Alice Springs seismic detection network goes in real-time to AFTAC headquarters in Florida, to Geoscience Australia, and to the International Monitory System (IMS) of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) in Vienna. As a signatory to the CTBT, Australia is required to maintain the JGGRS, which is identified in the treaty annex as Primary Seismic Station 03 (PS03). But while Australia has the right to locate staff at the station, the facility is in practice run entirely the US Air Force.

However, in understanding the relationship between the US alliance and military and intelligence facilities in Australia, it may be misleading to concentrate only on these well-known examples.

US military and intelligence agencies now have access to more than 50 Australian defence facilities. In some cases, this access was relatively minor, but in most cases it was considerable.

This represents a shift back to the situation that endured from the 1950s to the late 1970s when, as Desmond Ball documented in A Suitable Piece of Real Estate: American Installations in Australia, there was a large number of little-known US facilities in Australia. Over time, many of those were closed as US requirements changed.

That situation has now changed again.

The North West Cape high tech cluster of bases

One example is the high technology cluster of at least nominally Australian facilities on the Exmouth Peninsula and North West Cape to which all but one of which the US has access. Most of these facilities are longstanding, with US access reaching back to the early 1960s. Some are huge facilities like the VLF transmitter at the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station; the HANDS Ground Station Learmonth is the size of a house block.

US preoccupation with ‘’space domain awareness’’ is a central theme of the North West cape cluster. The Space Surveillance Radar and the Space Surveillance Telescope have only recently been constructed and deployed to North West Cape. The C-Band radar is now operating under the control of Remote Surveillance Unit No. 1 (1 RSU) at RAAF Base Edinburgh near Adelaide. The DARPA-constructed Space Surveillance Telescope, probably the most advanced military telescope in the world, is close to becoming operational, also under 1 RSU control, also “with oversight and management” by the US Space Force 21st Space Wing.

Both the space radar and the telescope supply information about the position, behaviour, location and character of satellites (and the about the location of space debris) critical for US space operations to Combined Space Operations (CSpOC), under the United States Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component Command.

In some cases, US access top Australian bases is total; in others operations are substantively joint. In other cases still Australian constructed and operated facilities, such as the Defence High Frequency System Stations, collaborate closely with their US equivalents, and are in important respects closely integrated, with access for US personnel.

A meteorological station such as the Learmonth Solar Observatory, located on RAAF Base Learmonth, may not seem strategically particularly important, yet since the LSO became operational in 1979 it has been operated by the US Air Force. Today the Learmonth facility is jointly managed by a division of the Bureau of Meteorology’s Space Weather Services and the USAF’s Detachment 1 of the 2nd Weather Squadron, Solar Observing Optical Network and Radio Solar Telescope Network, 557th Weather Wing. Learmonth is one of the 2nd Weather Squadron’s  five solar observatories worldwide. The effects of solar activity on radio communications (especially high frequency), on over the horizon radar, and on space satellite operations is a fundamental concern for both the US and Australian military.

Next door to the Solar Observatory, two small optical telescopes track satellites and space debris in Low Earth Orbit at the experimental High Accuracy Network Determination System (HANDS) Ground Station Learmonth. Operating entirely automatically and controlled  remotely from the US Air Force’s Kikei supercomputing space surveillance complex on the peak of the island of Maui in Hawaii, HANDS Ground Station Learmonth is a nominally joint facility which is in practice an entirely US affair, and makes up America’s smallest base in Australia. Minuscule in size by comparison to the Space Surveillance Telescope, HANDS Learmonth was a step in testing the viability of entirely remotely operated and automatically programmed mass space surveillance using of-the-shelf technology.

Foreign and Australian corporations have had a substantial presence at Australian defence and intelligence facilities for many years, but increasingly so in the past two decades, with increasing direct responsibility for operations as well as maintenance and development. Most are foreign companies such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Thales, IBM, BAE, SAIC, Leidos, General Dynamics, and Amentum. Australian corporate involvement is more limited both in size, scope and technological sophistication. The Australian government’s lead agency for defence science and technology, the Defence Science Technology Group, has established partnerships (‘strategic alliances’) with US and European defence industry giants such as Lockheed Martin.

One exception to foreign corporate primacy of advanced defence technology in Australia is the Canberra-based advanced sensor technology company Electro-Optical Systems (EOS). Defence analysts rate EOS as one of the few major Australian defence industry companies operating at an international level in advanced space technology. Lockheed Martin is a major partner with EOS.

On the south side of the Learmonth Solar Observatory on RAAF Base Learmonth another set of small but highly sophisticated telescopes makes up the Learmonth Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Observatory developed by Electro-Optical Systems. The Learmonth SSA Observatory is one specific result of its partnership with Lockheed.

This is part one of an edited extract from Richard Tanter’s submission to the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network People’s Inquiry in US-Australia Alliance, September 2021. Next: Heightening the involvement in nuclear war

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