A new article by Peter Cronau states that ‘the expansion of Pine Gap’s capabilities to assist a US strike on China amplifies the risk of … a nuclear war’. It highlights the dangers of Australia assisting in nuclear war planning and is clearly contrary to the spirit of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. See below for full article.

Pine Gap’s secret expansion
Saturday Paper
Peter Cronau, June 15, 2024

Pine Gap from northeast, Felicity Ruby, 23 January 2016, by Felicity Ruby / CC.

The United States satellite surveillance base at Pine Gap, jointly run with Australia, has been undergoing its largest and most rapid expansion ever, with 10 new satellite antennas or dishes being constructed over the past few years.

Three large satellite dishes have been built in the west of the base, in Central Australia, along with another four smaller dishes in the northern section and three new dishes in the south.

The new satellite dishes are built inside radomes, large ball-shaped structures covered with a plastic and fibreglass composite material to protect from the desert dust and sun, and from observation.

The total number of satellite radomes, smaller dishes and antennas at the base is now the highest ever, at 45, with 25 of the largest housed inside radomes and the other 20 uncovered, according to the latest research by Professor Richard Tanter, of the Nautilus Institute.

Linked remotely from Buckley Space Force Base in Colorado, these new Pine Gap satellite antennas can collect an enormous amount of intelligence on missile and rocket launches, including location, size, type, likely warhead, range, speed, trajectory, tracking and target location. They operate as an integral part of the US nuclear war-fighting strategy, providing real battlefield intelligence.

The expanded thermal imaging capability to detect and track ballistic missiles through all phases of flight will play a new critical role in US battlefield operations worldwide and in upgrading missile defence for the US and Japan.

The capability, which is enabled by the new Pine Gap radomes, gives an enormous advantage to the US in countering new generation weapons in future wars, whether they be defensive or pre-emptive. Their focus in particular is the growing power of China.

The Americans cleared about 14 hectares outside the western boundary of the Pine Gap base to expand the footprint for construction of the three huge new satellite radomes.

In March 2020, contractors began land-clearing the desert oaks and spinifex, and in June foundations for the three radomes were being prepared.

Only by scrutiny of publicly available satellite photographs of the base has Declassified Australia been able to follow the many stages of construction from 2020. No announcement was made to the Australian population, no permission sought from parliament, no development application to the regional council for the works.

It is an irony that it is the same sort of capability used by the US satellites to spy on the world, that allowed the base expansion to be detected.

By August 2020 the first of the concrete foundations was finished, the second under way. All three of the foundations to support each of the 20-metre radomes holding the three new satellite antennas were completed by December 2020.

A new extended boundary fence was put up in September and the following month small concrete pads, possibly movement sensors, were in place in the ground along the boundary.

Over the course of 2021, the large number of vehicles appearing each day in the car park outside the north-east visitors’ entrance to the base betrayed the presence of building and engineering contractors and the frenetic construction work under way. Dozens of shipping containers were delivered. On some days more than 100 vehicles could be counted in the outside visitors’ car park.

Construction of the three huge satellite antennas with their radome covers took about 10 months, with the first completed by June 2021, the second in August and the third finished by October.

The base has also had major new building works in the main complex, thought to be for an expanded data centre for the collection and analysis of signals intelligence (SIGINT). The building site clearing began in March 2021, with foundations laid by August, and the roof going on in February 2022.

One of the largest radomes for the SIGINT collection was rebuilt in 2022. As I reported for the ABC in 2017, it is the SIGINT capability of the base that gives it the battlefield surveillance capability to spy on military command and data communications, as well as on personal phones and communications. It also allows the geolocation of targets for elimination, most notably by lethal drone.

The expansion of Pine Gap’s capabilities to assist a US strike on China amplifies the risk of such a nuclear war as China and the US manoeuvre in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and adjacent areas.
Other parts of the base are expanding, too. In a separate compound to the south of the main section of the base, the multi-sensor Torus satellite dish has received a new sensor dish and three new small satellite dishes, likely for communication and enhanced surveillance.

The Torus system, now located in six countries, is directed at secretly gathering a massive volume of signals intelligence from most of the present 400 commercial communications satellites operated for the world’s phone, internet and data communications.

This is the collection system that US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed as using the XKeyscore analysis system, enabling the NSA to boast of its “collect it all” spying network. The expanding Pine Gap is helping the NSA to spy on the world.

At Declassified Australia I reported that Pine Gap was providing intelligence to the US for use by the Israel Defense Forces, most likely focusing on the “remote launch signals for Hamas rockets, as well as any threatened missile launches from Lebanon or Iran”. The new enhanced Pine Gap radomes add to this intelligence with rapid detection and tracking of the thermal signature of launches of rockets and missiles.

However, while Pine Gap base presently has a heightened attention to Ukraine and Gaza, these limited wars are not the main aim of the huge US investment in the Australian-sited base.

The development of the three new satellite antennas at Pine Gap is the subject of a new study by Professor Tanter. He says they indicate “a greater Australian involvement with US nuclear war fighting planning and operations”. The primary purpose of the new antennas is believed to be to hunt and target Chinese nuclear missile silos.

Despite the end of the Cold War, the US has never totally abandoned its “first use” nuclear policy, with US President Joe Biden saying of the policy in 2020, “the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring – and if necessary retaliating against – a nuclear attack”.

That changed after a Pentagon-led review of US defence strategy and nuclear weapons policy. The National Defense Strategy included a revised nuclear posture review.

In March 2022, in an article in The Wall Street Journal, Biden reflected this new policy when he opened up his options by saying the “fundamental role” of the US nuclear arsenal was to deter nuclear attacks.

This “fundamental” purpose is a clear move away from the administration’s previous policy of “the sole purpose” of the use of nuclear weapons. It raises the prospect that US nuclear weapons may now be used in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners”, in response to a serious conventional attack or other non-nuclear threat.

With the US retaining this policy option to respond to a serious military threat with nuclear weapons, a pre-emptive nuclear war with China is not impossible. If this happened, Australia would be on the nuclear frontline.

Clearly the Pine Gap base, and the other main surveillance and communication bases in Australia used by the US, at Kojarena near Geraldton and at North West Cape near Exmouth, will be prime targets in any war-planning by China.

It was at the Pine Gap base in March 2022 that the US Indo-Pacific commander, Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Space Command General James Dickinson, and the deputy head of US Cyber Command, Lieutenant General Charles Moore, met to discuss boosting security cooperation in space and the cyber domain.

They reassured Australian military and intelligence officials who gathered there that Australia was “an extremely high-end partner”.

Admiral Aquilino said the US and Australia would accelerate the Pentagon’s “integrated deterrence”. General Dickinson pointedly described how Australia helped the US military overcome the “tyranny of distance”: “It’s really location, location, location. This is a perfect location for a lot of the things we need to do.”

If China believes a war will turn nuclear, it may believe its only chance of survival is to shoot first and cripple the US to such an extent its retaliation is muted. De-escalation would be impossible.

The expansion of Pine Gap’s capabilities to assist a US strike on China amplifies the risk of such a nuclear war as China and the US manoeuvre in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and adjacent areas.

China knows the crucial role Pine Gap plays in locating Chinese command centres, missiles, warships and submarines, and that it is providing this intelligence to US nuclear-armed ships, submarines and bombers within easy reach of China.

Professor Paul Dibb, an academic at the Australian National University and former director of Australia’s Joint Intelligence Organisation, in a policy paper in 2022 confirmed Pine Gap was definitely a target if a conflict between the nuclear powers arose in the Indo-Pacific.

“We need to plan on the basis that Pine Gap continues to be a nuclear target, and not only for Russia,” says Dibb.

“If China attacks Taiwan, Pine Gap is likely to be heavily involved. We need to remember that Pine Gap is a fundamentally important element in US war fighting and deterrence of conflict.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 15, 2024 as “Mind the Gap”.