MACK WILLIAMS. Pine Gap: Cabinet Papers.

Jan 3, 2019

Lost in the flurry of media comment on the Cabinet papers released on 1 January was an extremely important( if not the most) submission formerly highly classified and titled as “Establishment of a Joint Australia-United States Relay Ground Station at Pine Gap”. As of writing, seemingly only the ABC has picked up on the submission with the major print media choosing not to report it – for reasons one can only speculate about! 

While the Cabinet submission has been significantly redacted in parts, it provides an invaluable insight not only of the case for Australia agreeing to the US approach on the RGS at Pine Gap but also of the domestic political judgment of the incumbent government and a snapshot of the Cabinet processes through which it passed. 

The submission also establishes the direct linkage of the opening of the RGS to the closure of a previous joint facility at Nurrungar. Several years earlier the US Air Force (USAF) had signalled it wanted to close Nurrungar and move to the next level of satellite-based operations at Pine Gap but negotiations about that transfer had been dragging on. The submission implies that the Government had some serious concerns about how they could present the implications for the future viability of Woomera township ( 1200 people) to the public (especially in South Australia)). Vague possibilities for separate space research at Woomera in the future were noted but without much optimism. Fast forward to 2018 and finally, we see the positive signs in that direction!

Despite what might be contained in a key redaction, the Submission states that the Australia-United States Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap 

“should be regarded as a new joint defence facility that we will host for many years”. 

And that it will replace Nurrungar which was a 

“satellite ground station of the United States Defense Support Program (DSP) which is the primary US system for providing first warning of ballistic missile launches worldwide.”

It went on to provide more detail ( heavily redacted) about the”existing” DSP satellites which “were designed to perform a single function: the early detection of the launch of large intercontinental ballistic missiles”. 

From which it contained the following argument that this

made possible the launch of a retaliatory strike before warheads struck their targets in the US. The inevitability of retaliation played a central part in deterring a first strike…the DSP satellites complemented other systems ( redaction) to give the US greater certainty that a nuclear attack was indeed underway….therefore made an important contribution to the avoidance of a nuclear war, a compelling Australian interest”.

It concluded that”Our alliance relationship with the US has endured and deepened because we share basic common values and have very similar views on challenges to the stability of the international system” followed by some lengthy complete redaction.

The submission set out two”fundamental considerations” to the proposal :

  • “whether the functions of the system of which RGS will be a part can be expected to be closely coincident with Australian interests”
  • “whether arrangements can be devised such that, through Australian involvement in the operation and management of the facility, the Government has effective full knowledge and concurrence of these functions”

It concluded that being able to assert”effective full knowledge and concurrence” would prove essential to gaining Australian public support. It set out four measures through which this could be achieved:

  • agreement (with the US) on the missions which the data passing through (Pine Gap) will contribute, together with an undertaking to consult before new missions are initiated, and annual reviews of the system of which RGS is a part
  • the ability to have …direct Australian access, in real time, to the event reporting produced by the central processing facility in the US
  • an Australian capacity to contribute to the tasking of the DSP/SBIRS system; and
  • involvement of Australian personnel in the team monitoring the operation at RGS”

But it also acknowledged that the above would only provide an”adequate “basis for”full knowledge and concurrence “but not the”quality of partnership and interaction” achieved at Nurrungar. For this Australians would need to be stationed the Mission Control Centre in the US for which more detailed examination with appropriate US agencies was required. It also conceded that the extent to which Australia would want to exercise its right of direct access in real time could not be”determined” at that time.

Of historical interest at least, the submission presented the changes as of a”minor nature “and given “the general level of community support for a US presence, we do not anticipate criticism locally (ed. around Alice Springs etc.)”. Nationally, it predicted

“some criticism by issue motivated groups opposed to a US presence in Australia…….in particular some isolated criticism that Australia is following the US down a path that leads to withdrawal from the ABM Treaty…

(But) .. the very high levels of public support for the alliance are grounds for confidence that, properly handled the new arrangements would be well accepted”

The coordination comments from relevant Commonwealth departments confirmed a general consensus in support of Defence’s submission with 

  • PM&C emphasising that no announcements should be made before a”fully satisfactory “set of arrangements with the US had been agreed and that Defence should absorb any additional costs of postings of Australian personnel to the US
  • DFAT “concurred”with the recommendations which it noted were consistent with alliance objectives and current arrangements at Nurrungsar but the had a section redacted
  • Treasury supported the recommendations but considered”any costs to Australia arising from the project be met from the existing Defence budget
  • A.G’s supported but wanted arrangements for APS guarding at Pine gap sorted out

The ensuing Cabinet Minute endorsed the Defence submission on the grounds that arrangements have been agreed and made :

  • “To allow Australia to exploit the capabilities of the system to address Australian Defence Force (ADF) interests ;
  • Enable Australia to make a contribution to the performance of systems’ missions; and
  • Through the above to ensure that Australia has full knowledge and concurrence of the operations of the Relay Ground Station and the wider systems it supports”

It also noted that, to ensure the above, Defence would conclude an Implementing Arrangement with the US”on the operation of the Relay Ground Station before it becomes operational”.

Aside from any discussion of the merits of the agreement, which has been shrouded in so much secrecy for so long, the release of this basic document right now is very relevant to the increasing public discussion about the extent to which Australia should allow itself to be locked in by Alliance membership. It raises a number of questions, not only about the redacted sections, including :

  • Assuming Defence was able to nail down the US to a satisfactory Implementing Arrangement before RGS became operational how has it performed in the years since? Especially given the controversy over Bill Hayden’s entering the”locked room”at Pine Gap and the commitment to”full knowledge and concurrence”
  • How successful has Defence been in updating and /or amending the Arrangement to reflect changing US mission objectives in the 20 years since the original decision was made – and maybe Australian objectives too? Take for example the widely reported involvement of Pine Gap or RGS in the controversial targeting of the massively increased US use of surveillance and attack drones? Has Australia concurred in that additional or expanded use?
  • What have been the funding implications for the Defence Budget? Do we get enough recognition from the US for the importance of Pine Gap in our regular bilateral Alliance discussions for what defence argued in their submission was the US’s then”the primary” US ballistic missile launch detection site
  • The obvious implications for Pine Gap ( and therefore Australia) of the simmering US: Russian tensions about missile development
  • Likewise Trump’s decision to establish a Space Force which seemingly would replace USAF operations in Pine Gap.

Mack Williams: Former Ambassador to the Philippines and the ROK, Royal College of Defence Studies

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