Building a wall of silence about possible attacks on Australia

Nov 20, 2020

There are plans to protect civilian populations in the case of a military attack on Australian soil, but they’re “classified” – not reassuring when you live in close proximity to the Pine Gap military base, widely regarded as a likely target for attack in the case of a hot war between global powers.

This ‘just trust us’ answer is as much as authorities in the Australian and Northern Territory governments would provide in response to my repeated questions, shuffling me around from the Department of Defence to NT Emergency Services to NT Department of the Chief Minister who deflected back to the Australian Government, where I went from the Department of Home Affairs – which has an Australian Disaster Preparedness Framework that makes no mention of military attacks – and back to the Department of Defence again, where I eventually landed on the word “classified”.

My inquiries were prompted by David Kilcullen’s warning in July that if the US and China go to war, “we lose cities on day one of that conflict” – “we” being Australia and the Northern Territory in particular.

“There’s a major US Marine presence in Darwin,” Kilcullen, a security analyst, counterinsurgency expert and now academic, told Paul Barclay on Radio National’s Big Ideas. “We’ve got joint facilities in Australia, these are nuclear targets in the event of a war between China and the US.”

The most important of Australia’s “joint facilities” is, of course, Pine Gap.

In 2018 Paul Dibb – who has a long career in defence and defence intelligence behind him and is now Emeritus Professor at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre – described as “reprehensible” the Australian Government’s failure in the 1980s to provide civil defence measures for the local populations in areas hosting the joint defence facilities, despite their being advised to do so.

Today, although “not really up to date with modern civil defence practices”, he would be “very surprised if either the Commonwealth or the NT has given any thought to civil defence measures for Pine Gap or Alice Springs or, for that matter, Darwin or Tindal.”

With his speciality interest in Russia, he considers the threat to the joint facilities arising from the US-Russia relationship is still live, or at least it was just four years ago:

“I last visited Moscow in 2016 with a small group of ANU strategic experts. In our formal discussions a retired Russian Colonel-General (one rank higher than our three Single Service Chiefs) observed that America and Russia are not discussing any strategic nuclear arms control agreements whatsoever – unlike in the Cold War.

Since then, the US has cancelled the INF Treaty which was the most effective nuclear disarmament agreement because it involved destroying over 2,000 intermediate nuclear weapons.

The Colonel-General said that, as a result of such tense relations, there was now a real danger of nuclear war. He then looked at me and announced ‘If nuclear war occurs you Australians will find that our ICBMs will fly in every direction, including at Pine Gap.’”

Also at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, John Blaxland, Professor of International Security & Intelligence Studies, downplays, although does not dismiss, the threat of an attack on Australian soil. In the context of rising tensions with China, he sees that we are more likely to face actions “below the threshold that would trigger an American military response”.

Without knowing it “for a fact”, his sense is that the “pundits involved in making risk assessments in Canberra and Darwin” take a similar view – that the risk of a military attack is “quite remote” and is seen as worth taking: “Us hosting the joint facilities and the Marines bolsters American resolve to back us and provide security to Australia. Conversely it makes us a target. Successive governments, Labor and Conservatives, have effectively concluded that that bargain is a good deal.” Civil defence measures would be very expensive, so governments choose to manage the risk “politically” rather than mitigate it.

And to do that it seems the strategy is to build a wall of silence by refusing to answer any questions about the pointy end of the military escalation we are witnessing in the NT, while endlessly talking up its boost to business and employment.

As I was making my enquiries, Chief Minister Michael Gunner, who now holds a portfolio of Strategic Defence Relations, put out a media release about the appointment of a new Northern Territory Defence and National Security Advocate, whose job is to “make sure NT businesses are well positioned to capitalise on the $270 billion defence equipment and capabilities spend over the next ten years.”

The late Professor Des Ball worked intensively on the risks to Australia represented by the joint facilities and the government’s responsibility to consider their amelioration, publishing in 1984, with J. O. Langtry, Civil Defence and Australia’s Security in the Nuclear Age.

His colleague Richard Tanter, Professor in the School of Political and Social Studies at the University of Melbourne and senior researcher with the Nautilus Institute, doubts that there’s anything more recent published on the subject, apart from a report in 1985 by the Northern Territory branch of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, authored by Peter Tait. Titled, “What will happen to Alice if the Bomb goes off?”, it drew substantially on Ball’s work while adding “considerable local context” to assess “the medical and health consequences for the town”.

Tanter, who reviewed the state of play in a 2013 article, “Possibilities and effects of a nuclear missile attack on Pine Gap”, agrees that the government may see hosting the joint facilities as “calculated risk” but that should not mean that civil defence is “to be utterly ignored.”

“The risk of an attack on Pine Gap is considerable in the event of a war involving global powers. So it’s perfectly reasonable for the government to be asked to detail [civil defence] plans. It’s hard to think of a valid security reason why such plans would not be public. They’re useless if they’re not public and constantly updated.”

He rates the likelihood of a nuclear attack on Pine Gap or Darwin as low – China could strike using a cruise missile instead but in any case is likely to have higher priority targets, such as Okinawa or Guam, which both also host US military facilities. However, were such an event to occur, “there is no possible effective defence of the civilian population, principally because the thermal wave [of the blast] would so devastate the environment. It would be totally uncontrollable, with wide-band bushfires of great energy and many different fire sources”.

The only effective protection would be “total precautionary evacuation” before the strike.

That’s obviously challenging for governments to think about but “if there’s no manageable civil defence response” then that’s an argument for not placing Australia “in a position to draw fire” in the first place, says Tanter.

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