RICHARD TANTER. An Australian pathway through Pine Gap to the nuclear ban treaty

The Pine Gap Relay Ground Station could be closed, with appropriate notice of intent, without genuine disadvantage to US national security.  This would provide a technically and strategically feasible pathway past the most important obstacle posed by Pine Gap to Australia becoming compliant with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons(TPNW).

Having failed to prevent the adoption of the nuclear ban by 122-1 at the United Nations in July 2017, the Australian government has shifted ground on its opposition to the treaty as it moves towards entry into force. In a remarkable display of arrogance and intellectual over-reach the government now asserts that, even if Australia wanted to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is simply incompatible with the continuation of the U.S. alliance. We are, the government says, already in too deep to pull out.

On May 31st, 2018, Richard Sadlier, a DFAT assistant secretary told a Senate estimates hearing that joining the treaty would be ‘impossible’, because the nuclear elements of activities at the ‘joint facilities’ are now too densely interwoven with the non-nuclear elements that they cannot be separated.

The joint facilities – a.k.a. Australia-located elements of the U.S. globally distributed systems of nuclear command, control and intelligence – are, Sadlier, argued, made up of ‘many separate interlocking structures, understandings, agreements and joint activities and facilities’ that are ‘incompatible’ with the treaty’, and that it is ‘impossible, not practical, for Australia to restrict roles under the alliance to non-nuclear missions.’

Sadlier did not feel a need to burden senators with any factual details about the undoubtedly complex situation at Pine Gap, North West Cape, or the numerous other ADF bases to which U.S. forces have access and which may have some activities that support U.S. nuclear planning and operations. No doubt, half a century of Australian nuclear cooperation with the United States will make analyzing and weighing the significance of the full range of nuclear-related activities at Australian bases a major research task. And as with many international treaties, lawyers are going to argue about ‘how much assistance is too much’ under the TPNW.

Pine Gap is the obvious test case.

Pine Gap is a US-constructed and US–paid-for intelligence facility outside Alice Springs operated by the US National Reconnaissance Office. More than 800 Australians and US men and women staff the facility, including units from all four branches of the US military.

A careful examination of precisely what Pine Gap does shows there is a viable pathway in the most important of its nuclear-related activities for Australia to become compliant with the TPNW without necessarily disrupting its alliance with the United States.

The US has for some time built technological alternatives to relying solely on Pine Gap for its most important nuclear-related operations.

Pine Gap’s multiple and complex intelligence activities can be very roughly characterised as providing ‘big ears’ and ‘big infrared eyes’. There are three distinct major space-related surveillance systems installed at Pine Gap, one of which has a critical role in US nuclear command, control and intelligence.

This is the Relay Ground Station (RGS) in Pine Gap’s western compound. The four main antennas of the RGS provide linkage to US early warning satellites which are together known in US military jargon as Overhead Persistent Infra-Red or OPIR, consisting of older Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites and the successor Space-Based Infra Red System (SBIRS) satellites. The infrared OPIR sensors detect the heat bloom of intercontinental and submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles launched against the US. Data from these sensors is downlinked to Pine Gap and sent automatically in real time to the system’s Mission Control Station at Buckley Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado, US Strategic Command and the White House, as early warning of nuclear attack.

Each of these two functions of the Relay Ground Station – early warning, and missile defence – might be seen as defensive, and therefore stabilising. However, such a claim is misleading. Missile defence, when it is possessed by only one of two nuclear-armed enemies, is anything but defensive and stabilising. China correctly points out that US–Japanese missile defence, should it work as advertised, promises to make China’s ‘minimum means of retaliation’ deterrence force vulnerable to an attack by America’s 6000 or so nuclear weapons. This has led China to modernise its current 250 to 300 nuclear weapons in a classic action-reaction armament cycle.

To comply with the TPNW, an Australian government would have to provide assurances that the Relay Ground Station’s OPIR systems could not and would not be used for nuclear planning or operations. The politically critical question is how this could be achieved without threatening US national security interests.

One approach to compliance could be for the Australian government to request, and the United States to accept, verifiable binding legal, organisational and technical limits on specific categories of the operations of the RGS – i.e. separating the defensive functions from nuclear war-fighting. Achieving agreement to such verification from the United States would be very difficult at any time, and highly implausible at present.

An alternative approach would be for an Australian government to require the closure of the Relay Ground Station and the removal of its systems from Pine Gap, leaving the rest of the base and its principal signals intelligence functions – and acknowledged US national security concerns – unaffected. This could occur over an agreed period of time – say, for argument’s sake, five years.

This is technically and strategically achievable without closing Pine Gap as a whole, and without throwing the alliance into crisis, for two good reasons.

Firstly, the OPIR Relay Ground Station is quite different in physical, personnel and technological character from the much larger signals intelligence part of the facility. The RGS is physically small and distinct, and is operated automatically and remotely by the Mission Control Station at Buckley AFB in Colorado. There are only a very small number of staff on site at the RGS – essentially for maintenance. Pine Gap does not process or retain any of the data downlinked from the satellites – it flows automatically to Buckley AFB by optical fibre and satellite communication.

Secondly, for decades the US has been acutely aware of the physical vulnerability of critical nuclear command and control facilities like Pine Gap to enemy attack, and has therefore built technological redundancy into the OPIR system. All of Pine Gap’s OPIR satellites have satellite-satellite crosslinks and communications links to US relay satellites. These enable the crucial warning data to be transmitted from one to another and then downlinked to the Mission Control Station on US soil without ever relying on the Pine Gap RGS.

In addition, US OPIR satellites themselves can and do downlink directly to dispersed mobile ground terminals in the US, as well as to US combat commands in around the world, such as South Korea. The RGS at Pine Gap – which is highly vulnerable to attack – provides redundant backup to both the cross-links and the mobile stations systems but is not in itself essential to the OPIR system’s survival.

By deterring a surprise first strike, reliable early warning of nuclear attack is a key element of nuclear deterrence. Even with the RGS closed, all the data critical for US early warning would still flow from the OPIR satellites to the Mission Control Station.

The Pine Gap Relay Ground Station could be closed, with appropriate notice of intent, without genuine disadvantage to US national security.  This would provide a technically and strategically feasible pathway past the most important obstacle posed by Pine Gap to Australia becoming compliant with the TPNW.

Of course, there are other activities both at Pine Gap (‘big ears’ or signals intelligence) and at other bases that do or could assist US nuclear weapons use. Some of these may turn out to be more obdurate to reform, and pose more difficult political decisions.

Yet while further research into the full range of these potentially prohibited activities is necessary, the RGS constitutes the principal and most direct form of assistance to US nuclear war fighting. An Australian government that was acting in good faith would be taking a huge step towards compliance with the prohibition on assistance to fighting a nuclear war by giving notice the US that the RGS is to be closed.

The government’s claim that Australian assistance to US nuclear weapons planning and operations is inseparable from non-nuclear alliance cooperation is incorrect, disingenuous, and arrogant in this most important and egregious case.

* Richard Tanter is a Senior Research Associate at the Nautilus Institute and teaches the University of Melbourne. He is a former president of ICAN Australia. A footnoted version is available here. < A shorter and edited version of this article appears in Choosing Humanity: Why Australia must join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, ICAN Australia, July 2019, pp. 22-24.


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4 Responses to RICHARD TANTER. An Australian pathway through Pine Gap to the nuclear ban treaty

  1. Avatar Rory McGuire says:

    Two comments: 1. Decades ago the US ran very successful tests showing that satellites could detect submarines and now satellites can detect the surface bulge caused by a moving sub and the Chinese have deployed undersea sensors able to detect subs at 400km, allegedly around Guam. Most of this, and more, will pop up in a 10-minute Google search so what is going on in secret is anyone’s guess, but if you look at what’s being done in physics labs around the world, which are largely driven by defence projects and where detection limits are plummeting, it suggests the vastness of the ocean is no longer a good hiding place. As Brian points out, the US can already do this so it’s only a matter of time before the Chinese catch up. And this suggests Australia’s $50 bn sub fleet will be useless long before it is operational. Which suggests the decision to build these subs was not the act of a rational mind. Why do we do these things? Which brings me to my second point.
    2. We Australians throw up some peculiar contradictions, one of which is, in the words of the immortal John Howard, we “punch above our weight”, and we like doing it and we are, of course, very good at it. So why can’t we be an independent nation? We let go of Mother England’s apron when it became apparent she could no longer protect us, and immediately clutched at Uncle Sam’s waistcoat, hoping he would look after us, which he will do only if it suits him. In the meantime he has led us into some places we should never have strayed: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq (before the invasion began but we don’t hear much about that) and now we’re being lured into this irrational and illegal Iran beat-up. As Bruce says, we need not be anyone’s enemy so why do we harbour someone’s potential enemy? China certainly is acting aggressively but so far it has been too smart to start any major wars, unlike the US. In fact China has probably learnt from the US example which shows that modern wars are horribly expensive and usually counterproductive. The GWOT, global war on terrorism, although hard to define must be the most spectacularly ill-conceived war of all time: cost and confusion on one side driving an explosive expansion of terrorism on the other.
    Generally, did Japan launch a war of aggression in WWII or was it reacting defensively to expected aggression mainly from the US? If China starts a hot war will it be a reaction to expected aggression, mainly from the US? Why has China moved aggressively but with hardly a shot being fired into the South China Sea? Why are we involved in these potentially lethal fiascos?
    We might be able to deceive ourselves into believing we can punch above our weight but until we realise we are fighting in the lightweight division we are more likely to acquire a bloody nose than anything else. What we should be doing is thinking above our weight but there seems little prospect of that.

  2. Avatar Bruce George says:

    If Australia is too deep to withdraw from the “dangerous alliance” with the USA, then we have a serious problem of having given up all claim to being a sovereign nation, not that such a claim was particularly strong as Australia is still, operating on a colonial constitution, however our inter-operability with the USA military now makes us a colony of the USA. So what’s new?
    What is new is the changing geopolitical scene in the world outside of the Western consesus of how things are. Yes, the USA is still, by some measures the largest economy, and outspends China and Russia combined on it’s known military expenditure, and can out gun any other nation on this one earth that we all live on. But the ground beneath the Anglo-American alliance’s certainties is shifting. Despite 100 years of trying to destablise the Eurasian heartland as advocated by Mackinder in 1904, this very heartland is now is in the strongest position it has been for most of those 100 years and not looking like crumbling under the pressure of trade or economic scanctions, but on the contrary is spurned on by those very sanctions. Russia and China are entering a period of unprecedented cooperation with initiatives which will circumvent the dominance of the fiat currency issued by the private bankers Federal Reserve, which could collapse at any moment due to the same conditions now extant that lead to the 2008 GFC.
    Holding onto old certainties while the geopolitics of the world is shifting is rather like keeping one’s collective head in the sand and refusing to pull it out snd have a good look at the world as it is. When we do this we might see that right now our best strategy for survival in the emergent muli-polar world is neutrality, for the only reason for anyone attacking any part of Australia is that we harbour their enemy, not that we are their enemy.
    So to say we are too deep to withdraw in the current world situation is sheer madness and show a total failure to put Australia’s interests first. Out best means of defense is not further and deeper dependence on a fading uni-polar force, but independence from that fading force.

  3. Avatar Brian Toohey says:

    Brian Toohey, it is not clear that Australia’s obligations under the non-proliferation treaty can be squared with the way in which Pine Gap and other facilities are entwined
    in the US nuclear war fighting capabilities.
    Incidentally, China has only has four nuclear armed missile carrying nuclear submarines. US can constantly track and sink these submarines before they could file a retaliatory response to a US first attack.

  4. Avatar Frank Alley says:

    I would have thought that in the unlikely event of Russia or China launching a nuclear missile attack against the US, Pine Gap and North West facilities would be hit first, as would other such facilities in other countries. Both Russia and China have submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles whilst submerged. Yonks ago I asked a colleague who had been involved in ASW (anti-submarine warfare) ‘what is the submarine’s most effective defence?’. His reply ‘the vastness of the ocean.’ Australia has had on its land nuclear targets since the 60’s. Our own ASW aircraft were detecting (snooping) Russian submarines in joint RAAF/RAN maritime exercises back then. Capabilities on all sides would have been much improved since then. It is a dangerous game and I fear that morally weak politicians like we have might just like to big note themselves and support the Americans in more ridiculous and disastrous adventures.

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