DENNIS ARGALL. Pine Gap and national strategic independence.

Aug 24, 2017

For a long time people have focused concern on Pine Gap.  But Pine Gap is but an element of our entanglement with United States strategic policy, which is the big thing to be addressed and turned around. 

Recently Andrew Farran wrote (  expressing concern about the increased capabilities of the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap.  It is a big and impressive cart but nothing can be done about it without dealing first with the horse of strategic entanglement with the US.

For the record… I am the surviving participant in the negotiations between Australia and the US from December 1972 to February 1973 in relation to Pine Gap, after the election of the Whitlam Government.  I reported directly to Sir Arthur Tange, Secretary of the Defence Department.  The Department of Foreign Affairs was not party to those discussions.

Andrew wrote: “Initially Australian authorities did not know as much as they would have liked about the…  operations [of defence facilities with the US in Australia, particularly Pine Gap] and saw this as a diminishment of national sovereignty.   Through negotiations in the 1970s, the Whitlam Government obtained the agreement of the US that it would be informed of and required to assent to all operational activity on the part of the facilities to ensure that nothing would be done there that would complicate or prejudice our own diplomatic relations or national interests.”

Governments prior to the Whitlam Government did not regard the bases as diminishing sovereignty, perhaps because they didn’t give it much thought, or had a sense of being joined at the hip to the US.

The Whitlam Government’s position on Pine Gap and other US bases in Australia was set out by Lance Barnard, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, on the second sitting day of the parliament at the end of February 1973.

That statement was more slender than it would have been had Whitlam submitted the draft to the whole Cabinet and not to the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of Cabinet.  By Whitlam’s account, Senator Lionel Murphy, chair of that committee, had snarled “you can have your bloody bases but I’m not wearing your bloody argument” — the ‘bloody argument’ being that Pine Gap and Nurrungar contributed to war avoidance and strategic balance, an argument extracted from the US with as much ease as wisdom tooth extraction without anaesthesia or consent.  It was my sad duty, having fought with Sir Arthur to get a big part of our text to cover strategic perspective, then to chop the guts out of the text.

I remain on the Pine Gap ‘silent list’ but I can say that the American judgement at the time was that the USSR did not distinguish between big bases and little bases and they did not want to attract attention to Pine Gap and Nurrungar.  For that reason alone there was no mention in the draft speech, contrary to our desires, of the place of Pine Gap and Nurrungar as elements of the National Means of Verification at the core of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT1) between the US and USSR.

The latter part of the quote from Andrew’s text, above, is not quite correct.  Dealing especially with issues related to the North West Cape communications facility, with very low frequency capability of communicating with and sending commands to submerged nuclear missile submarines, one comes to Article II of the NPT: “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices OR OF CONTROL OVER such weapons…” [emphasis added].

So we needed something other than ‘control’ and, when Barnard later visited Washington, the accord reached with Defense Secretary Schlesinger was that, as Australia associated itself with United States strategic policy, there arose an entitlement for Australia to have a consultative relationship on strategic policy.  As this process of consultation developed, it vanished on the Australian side down some hole in Defence with which I am only tangentially aware –  though recently looking at US archives for record of the Barnard-Schlesinger meeting, I find that there is nothing mentioned in their record of conversation of a significant new accord having been reached.

Leaving aside the quality, or not, of ongoing strategic consultation, we are now in a very different world from the days of strategic balance between two nuclear superpowers.

Now we have a world of one hyper-power, a hegemon that creates more conflict than it resolves and – by chauvinistic ambition and force structure and deployment momentum – seeks to denude other nuclear powers of security based on possession of second-strike capabilities.  This situation is now complicated by erratic and social discord in the US, though with a Clinton Administration the same hegemonic ambitions would likely be being pursued with greater efficiency.

Of course a clear minded strategic consultation process with the United States would have made that evident and perhaps enabled independent policy judgement by Australia…

Pine Gap is a very substantial element in, but best regarded as part of, a network of capabilities entangling us with the United States. Our involvement in all that network can only be altered by political resolve:

  • first to take back command of strategy from the Australian defence force to civilian government leadership,
  • second to enter into serious thoughtful strategic discussion with the US about the future of our region and
  • third to find our way to more overt and coherent public enunciation of a decent place for Australia in the region as an independent country among peers.

I have doubts about our capacity to do those things, not least given the drift into domestic militarism and continuing thoughtless international adventurism.

The keys must be the commitment of younger people to a democratic system that many of them think is broken, and the capacity of younger people to work to rebuild the system from within.

Dennis Argall worked in Foreign Affairs and Defence and in overseas posts including Washington as counsellor and Beijing as ambassador.

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