Pine Gap shines in global snooping: report


p2243-Pine-Gap-TorusBy ERWIN CHLANDA
Partner, sniff, know, collect, process and exploit it all – that is the motto of the new global “collection posture” for communications interception – military as well as civilian – of the group called Five Eyes, headed by the USA.
And Pine Gap, just outside Alice Springs, is a key installation in this world-wide spy network.
The function of “the base” has grown significantly in the recent past, especially with the addition of a multi beam antenna, known as Torus.
Public awareness of the Torus program is largely a product of revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. So says a report released last week by a team from the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, in Berkeley, California, including Desmond Ball, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University.
Prof Ball has published widely about the American spy base here.
p2243-Torus-1The other authors are Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist; Canadian blogger Bill Robinson; and Richard Tanter, Honorary Professor in the School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
The new report says Five Eyes consists of the NSA, the British Government Communications Headquarters, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, the Australian Signals Directorate and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau.
The report’s authors say they conclude that development work at the observed … sites since 2000 has more than doubled coverage, and that adding “multiple” Torus installations around the world has more than trebled potential coverage of global commercial satellites.
Says Prof Ball in a comment to the Alice Springs News Online: “A fundamental transformation in roles and strategic implications has occurred.
“It was a highly specialised mission, control of geostationary Signals Intelligence satellites focussed on selective microwave emitters on the ground or telemetry emitted during missile tests, intelligence collection, and essential for arms control verification.
“Now it is a multi-agency, multi-purpose mega-intelligence centre. Collect-it-all. Military as well as civilian. Linked directly to military operations, including drone strikes.
p2243-Desmond-Ball“[Now we have] geostationary Signals Intelligence satellites, Defense Support Program, Space-Based Infrared System [and programs] for early warning of missile launches, foreign satellite, communications satellite collection, including Torus, and also imagery and geospatial,” says Prof Ball (pictured).
‘There have been no official statements about new roles. There is a need for a informed public re-assessment.
“Maybe some roles are now difficult to justify, e.g., drones, certainly for me. Collect-it-all and privacy. But how to separate out the necessary from the excessive?
“Each of the various roles needs to be re-evaluated, publicly justified. Collect-it-all because Torus now permits, not because it provides lucrative intelligence,” says Prof Ball.
The report says: “Although these developments have taken place in open sight, the deployment of the Torus antennas has mostly gone unheralded.
“There are about 232 antennas available at identified current Five Eyes sites, about 100 more antennas than in 2000.
“We conclude that development work at the observed Five Eyes sites since 2000 has more than doubled coverage, and that adding Torus has more than trebled potential coverage of global commercial satellites.”
The report says the Pine Gap satellite ground station is managed by the US National Reconnaissance Office.
“Its original and still principal purpose is to serve as the ground control station for geosynchronous signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites developed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
“It probably remains the CIA’s most important technical intelligence collection station in the world.
“The first of the CIA’s geostationary SIGINT satellites, then called RHYOLITE, was launched on June 17, 1970.
“Increasing numbers of civilian NSA personnel joined [Pine Gap’s] activity through the 1990s.
“A reorganisation of the management structure in 1997 established Special Collection Elements, comprising personnel from not only the CIA but also the NSA and Service Cryptological Agencies.
“In the case of the US Navy, for example, an Information Operations Detachment was established, with three officers and 40 enlisted men, in March 1998,” says the report.
“A detachment of the US Army’s 743rd Military Intelligence Battalion, a detachment of the US Air Force’s Air Intelligence Agency’s Intelligence Operations Group, and a sub-unit of the US Marines’ Cryptologic Support Battalion were also posted to Pine Gap in the late 1990s.
“There are now 38 satellite dishes and radomes at Pine Gap. Most are still concerned with the core function of controlling geosynchronous SIGINT satellites and processing and analysing the intercepted intelligence.
“On October 1, 1999, the US Air Force officially opened a Relay Ground Station which relays data from US missile launch detection / early warning satellites … to both US and Australian HQs and command centres. It replaced the US Air Force’s DSP ground control station at Nurrungar [about 15 km south of Woomera].
“Six of the satellite terminals at Pine Gap, four in radomes and two unshielded, belong to the Relay Ground Station.
“Another three radomes are probably associated with the US Missile Defense Agency’s Space Tracking and Surveillance System.
“Pine Gap appears to have acquired a Foreign Satellite / communications satellite interception function in the early 20p2243-Pine-Gap-100s.
“Two 23-metre dishes were installed inside 30-metre radomes in 1999–2000.
“Of significant interest, it appears that Detachment 2 of the US Air Force’s Air Intelligence Agency’s 544th Intelligence Operations Group, previously located at Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico, was transferred to Pine Gap in the early 2000s [which signified] that Pine Gap had become a new Foreign Satellite site.
“From August 2005 to July 2007, Detachment 2 of the 544th IOG at Pine Gap comprised 28 personnel.
“The detachment includes a Geospatial Metadata Analysis unit which ‘optimises information flow to the warfighter,’ and especially Special Operations Forces teams.
“The unit is now designated Detachment 1 of the 566th Intelligence Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, under the 544th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs,” says the report.
“A Torus multi-beam antenna was installed at Pine Gap in 2008. It is located a little more than 200 metres south of the main compound in an entirely separate fenced compound measuring 55 meters by 50 meters.
“It was the first satellite antenna at Pine Gap to be located outside the principal antenna compound.
“The antenna faces north-northwest, boresighted at 329 degrees towards the equator, corresponding to 120 degrees East on the geostationary belt.
“Its purview extends from about 85 degrees East to about 155 degrees East longitudes, fitting the gap between Seeb [on the north coast of Oman] and Waihopai [in New Zealand].”
PHOTOS (from top): Part of Pine Gap, with multi-beam antenna at rear (banana-shaped), photo courtesy Richard Tanter • Close-up of Torus antenna • Google Earth image of Pine Gap • All photos except the Google Earth and the one of Prof Ball one are from the report.


  1. I am a former local of Alice Springs and every few months I visit this website to see what is happening in and around the centre. I don’t usually comment but this is certainly a very interesting article. Thanks Erwin Chlanda for reporting.

  2. With all this technology, how come the can not tell us where the Malaysian airliner ended up? In my opinion Australia needs to distance ourselves from America, for everywhere they go they cause war and misery.
    They have not won a war since 1945. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – all ended in disaster.
    We will draw trouble to us. Australia needs to be more independent and not a puppet on a string for America. Australia needs to increase defence spending and rely less on America.

  3. @ Fred the Philistine, Posted June 4, 2015 at 8:08 pm:
    When you say, “…cannot tell us where the Malaysian airliner ended up …” perhaps “will not” would be more accurate.
    And don’t forget MH17 shot down over Ukraine. If there were any hard evidence that Russia was responsible, don’t you think that evidence would be in the public domain by now?
    Before he became POTUS, Bill Clinton made arguably his most intelligent remark: It’s the economy, stupid.


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