By KIERAN FINNANE
“In the 60s, when we had no rights here, they built that space base and we didn’t know nothing about it.”
Pat Ansell Dodds was speaking at the packed public meeting held at The Chifley in Alice Springs by the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) last Friday. A native title holder of the Untulye estate group, she was referring to her people’s lack of information about the base – not that different from the rest of the town’s, although there are also cultural issues at stake.
“One of the things that worried us is that there’s a sacred site not far there, ” she said. “We went there and told them – a few years ago when there were a lot of protests – that they shouldn’t go near it.”
In the late ‘60s her mother worked at that base “but she didn’t know nothing about what they were doing”.
“Myself in the early ‘70s I was working in town. The Americans had a lot of houses, I was in the main office here. So we have history of it but we don’t know nothing, because nobody tells us anything of what they’re doing on our land.
“As far as we are concerned we should be told properly the true things about what they are doing here and this government’s hiding everything from us.”
The government might be staying mum, but on the weekend the IPAN speakers filled in a lot of gaps for those who cared to listen.
IPAN formed in response to the deal struck in 2011 by the Gillard government and the Obama administration to base a “permanent rotation” of US Marines and aircraft in Darwin, or more properly the Top End, as they are using the Delamere Weapons Range (south of Katherine), the Bradshaw Field Training Range (near Timber Creek), and the RAAF base at Tindal.
This is part of “a great upsurge” in American access to and use of Australian bases, Professor Richard Tanter told the meeting. He works at the School of Political and Social Studies at the University of Melbourne and is also a senior research associate with the Nautilus Institute, an international policy think tank focussed on security and sustainability.
Australia now shares its defence satellite communications station at Geraldton, in WA, with “two very large American operational military communications systems”, said Prof Tanter.
Northwest Cape, further up the coast in WA, was for a long time a very low frequency submarine communication facility. Now it’s been upgraded with the construction of a space radar and a space telescope. This is “a very new part of US activities in Australia, connected with warfare in space”, which put simply, is about keeping track of adversary satellites in space which, in the event of war, the US would want to neutralise.
As for Pine Gap, established 50 years ago by an Australian-US treaty, it too is growing enormously in size and function. But why was Pine Gap chosen as a location in the first place? Principally for one technical reason, explained Prof Tanter.
The Central Intelligence Agency – in “a quite remarkable technological achievement” – had invented the idea of putting a satellite 36,000 kms above the earth to stare down at its surface and, in particular, to listen with giant antennas for the very weak radio signals of Soviet missiles being tested. This was so the CIA could work out the capability of Soviet systems and weapons and America could build their own to oppose them.
The massive amount of data that the satellite collected had to be downloaded in a very thin targeted beam. By the time the beam reached earth, however, it spread out over a circle about 150 kms in diameter. Pine Gap, remote and secluded, was the ideal place for receiving that data and the base became operational in 1970.
Today this technical reason, linked to gathering strategic level intelligence, is no longer relevant as the downlinks are encrypted.
New functions, developed at Pine Gap after the closure of the Nurrungar base in South Australia in 1999, are to do in part with the American early warning system: very powerful infrared telescopes on satellites looking for the heat bloom from the launch of rockets which could drop nuclear weapons on American soil. The telescopes’ improved capability now allows them to see not just rockets lifting off, but jet aircraft moving across the sky and explosions on the ground.
The idea is to shield America from incoming missiles, which of course it will take out with strikes of its own: “Very difficult technically but it’s actually pretty close to reality now,” said Prof Tanter.
Listening, to a great deal more than Soviet radars, is done by a growing number of antennas – there were two to three in 1970, today there are 33. And they are much more powerful, picking up the content of satellite phone and cell phone conversations as well as their location. Processed at Pine Gap, this data is used in the conduct of war, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, as well for detecting people allegedly carrying out terrorist activities.
The data is sent to the United States and, “with President Obama’s signature, which he gives very often”, there is then a drone assassination.
Very often that’s in countries with which Australia and America are not at war, said Prof Tanter: “Therefore it’s very clear, in ordinary law, let alone elementary morality, these are matters of simple murder and assassination.”
Australians are “very closely involved” with these operations. Our citizens are now in “every part of Pine Gap, in every section, every division, with the Australian Defence Department using very large parts of that data and contributing to it.
“It’s good in one way, at least we are not locked out the way we were before, but of course with that comes a culpability.”
Right: Pine Gap, February 2016. Photo by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff, made available to the Nautilus Institute (NonCommercial CC BY-NC).
Sooner or later this will become very clear in international law, said Prof Tanter.
More detail about Australia’s involvement with the drone program was revealed by Alex Edney-Browne, speaking at the IPAN conference on Saturday. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, examining the psychological and physiological effects of drone warfare for people living under drones and for US Air Force drone operators.
Over the coming decade Australia plans to spend $3b to $4b on unarmed ISR (intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance) drones, and $1b to $2b on armed ISR drones. These figures come from the 2016 Defence White Paper and Integrated Investment Program, released in February. However, this is not the start of Australia’s active take-up of drone warfare.
Already RAAF pilots are embedded with the US airforce operating out of the Nevada Desert, flying drones over Syria.
From 2010 to 2014 the Australian Defence Force flew unarmed Heron drones over Afghanistan as part of the Australian contribution to “US led so-called counter-terrorism operations”, said Ms Edney-Browne.
Heron drones are manufactured by the Israeli Airforce Corporation, entirely owned by the Israeli Government, which uses drones in Gaza against civilians and sells them as “combat proven”. Australia was renting those drones from the Israeli Government on an hourly basis for the whole four year period, to the tune of some $370m.
It is an “oxymoron” that drone munitions are “precision explosives”, she argued. There are two types: GBU12 500lb bombs with a kill radius of 60-90 meters, and the aptly-named Hellfire missiles, 35lb bombs with a kill radius of 15-20 meters, and designed to create fire on impact.
“If this is being sold to us as being surgically precise warfare, even if you had the right intelligence and got the right target, you’re also getting everyone else up to 90 metres away (depending which of the missiles is being used). The worst surgery ever,” said Ms Edney-Browne.
She argued that the populist image of the lone drone pilot with a joystick makes invisible the extent of the ‘drone program’, a surveillance and communications structure, weaponised with drones, that spans the globe, from Pine Gap to Ramstein Airbase in Germany.
Far from solo operations, the average combat air control mission, involving only three or four drones, engages about 180 drone personnel, she said.
In the intelligence domain, the drone program has shifted intelligence-gathering away from people on the ground, with whatever their limitations, to signals intelligence, which might sound sophisticated but is also far from foolproof.
She cited the example of Malik Jalal, a member of North Waziristan Peace Committee, who has been trying to mediate between the Taliban and Pakistani government. His meta data, not surprisingly showing contact with the Taliban, has landed him on the US kill list. He has so far managed to evade four drone attacks. He is also very fearful for the safety of his family, said Ms Edney-Browne.
Pine Gap’s involvement with American drone attacks is one of the top 10 reasons put forward by Prof Tanter for closing the base. The others are:
• It facilitates an American first strike.
• It makes possible a second nuclear strike.
• It’s a priority Russian and (possibly to a lesser extent) Chinese nuclear target.
• It’s crucial for Japanese and American missile defence with very destabilising consequences “in that mad world of nuclear deterrence”.
• It’s deeply involved in actual battlefield operations right now, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.
• It has a new hugely consequential role in American space warfare.
• It’s a key part of a global surveillance network operated by the US.
• Australian Defence Force uses of the base “move us into a new realm where almost the default position of Australian foreign policy is to go along with the US, which limits our autonomy enormously.
We may seem “hard wired” into all this but it is possible to think about disentangling ourselves, he argued. We need to look at when Australian interests and American interests coincide and when do they not. The size and capabilities of the bases at Pine Gap and Northwest Cape say to China that Australia is essentially an American base, and that if America goes to war with China, we will be part of that.
Is that really the way we want to go? he asked.
And beyond the Australian interest, we also need to consider the human interest: “We talk about nuclear war between America and Russia, or America and China, but what about the 198 countries that have no say in that?”
By KIERAN FINNANE