By ERWIN CHLANDA
The original reason for Pine Gap being in the middle of Australia has long gone: Much of what it is doing can now be done anywhere in the world.
But the new spectre of cyber war has given it a fresh and more powerful role, as a node in a global network of command centres.
Professor John Blaxland (pictured), head of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, spoke with the Alice Springs News Online during the Developing Northern Australia conference in Alice Springs this week.
He said: “The world today is different to what it was when Pine Gap was built. In the late 1960s the technology was all analogue, and the encryption technologies were not nearly as sophisticated as they are today.
“When Pine Gap was built, placing it in the centre of Australia made enormous sense because of the footprint of the satellites and the ability to protect the reception of the satellite receivers and the transmitters.
“That is no longer the case.
“Geographically, a lot of that stuff can be remoted. You can actually nowadays transmit from satellite to satellite around the globe without actually having to touch down on earth in the middle of Australia,” says Prof Blaxland.
“But what Alice Springs is now is enormous sunk cost, enormous investment already there, and remarkable redundancy.
“People say you can probably do this without having to rely on Alice Springs, but in a major conflagration, or in a situation where satellites are compromised, or networks are degraded, Alice Springs provides remarkable enduring utility.”
NEWS: The satellites need to be up there for Pine Gap to have any role.
BLAXLAND: Yes, but there are so many up there. It’s about how many are still working. It’s not about whether they are not working at all, it’s about which ones are working. And if you have a degraded situation, Pine Gap in fact may become all the more important.
NEWS: As a command centre?
BLAXLAND: As a critical node in a network of command centres. Redundancy, in an age of cyber warfare, is more important than ever.
Richard Tanter (pictured in Alice Springs during a peace conference in 2016), Senior Research Associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, and from the University of Melbourne, when asked for comment, provided the following additions to this report:-
The location of Pine Gap originally was determined in the mid-1960s by the fact that the downlink from the first signals intelligence satellites – the Rhyolite sats – was unencrypted.
Satellite weight was a problem then, and computers were big, and so, onboard encryption capacities were a step too far.
Consequently, there was a need to make sure the Soviet Union couldn’t just sit beside the antennas with their own dish, and be able to work out what the US was listening to.
The technology in those days led to a requirement that there be no possibility of anyone putting up an antenna within a radius of about 160 kms.
That ruled out convenient islands in our part of the world like Diego Garcia and Guam. Alice was just the spot. That also led to the establishment of the ASIO presence in Alice for that purpose.
There are three major surveillance systems at Pine Gap, two of which are relevant to what John is talking about.
The one that is not is the operation of the ground-based interception of the downlinks from foreign commercial and military communications satellites – the three antennas at Pine Gap which pick up what Indonesian, Chinese, etc comms satellites are beaming back down to their users. That’s important, but all happens on the ground.
The primary system, for which the place was built, are the links to the space-based big ears: The giant signals intelligence satellites above the equator or the mid-Pacific to roughly the west of the Indian Ocean with their forest of antennas.
Pine Gap not only downlinks, processes and analyses the data they collect, but it also commands and controls the satellites, keeping them on their stations (harder than you might think), tells their antennas what to point at and when, and so on.
The second system, inherited from Nurrungar after it closed, provides command, control and data downlink for the big infrared eyes – three early warning satellites in similar positions with powerful infrared telescopes.
Early warning and missile defence functions involve detecting the initial heat bloom of missile launches, working out what they are, and calculating from their initial trajectory where they are heading, when they will hit.
In the missile defence case, they would be cueing the land sea-based US, Japanese and South Korean ballistic missile defence systems to point their fire control radars to a tiny part of the sky at a certain time, so they might then have a chance of firing their missiles to hit the incoming one.
Both the SIGINT (signal intelligence) and infrared surveillance systems are also very useful in the Iraq and other battlefields.
There is now no longer any absolute technical reason for any of the facilities at Pine Gap to be located only there – though there are some limits about movement.
• The antennas have to be somewhere in the “view” of the satellites they deal with, which means roughly, somewhere between the mid-Indian Ocean and the mid-Pacific.
• The SIGINT massive data processing and analysis facilities can be anywhere, as long as they link to the antennas and back to the US.
• The volume of SIGINT data probably limits the possibility of full SIGINT satellite-to-satellite and relay satellite crosslinks at this stage.
The early warning sats with smaller data requirements can definitely communicate with each other, though given the level of reliability you need, you might not want to bet the country’s future survival on it.
Sunk costs [mentioned by Prof Blaxland] – yes, but …
• The early warning satellites have relatively small amounts of data to transmit (though much more than in the past now they can “see” more and better), so they might be able to operate adequately with their sat-to-sat crosslinks to get the data to Buckley Airforce Base, Colorado, and the back-up stations.
• The SIGINT satellites have much greater data downlink requirements – they “suck up” huge volumes of radio frequency transmissions and emissions. Our judgement was that SIGINT satellite crosslink capabilities are not yet adequate for volume or reliability for full data link. Maybe in the future.
• But given that one main purpose of the infrared sats is to give warning of imminent nuclear missile attack on the homeland, and the other is to give almost REAL TIME cueing of the Pacific Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) assets for the predicted trajectory of enemy missiles a few seconds after launch, there is a lot riding on the outcome of the connection from the satellites to Buckley. If the satellite crosslinks work as advertised, maybe fine; but if something gets in the way, not good for national survival. At this stage I would say the sat-sat crosslinks are the wartime backup for the optical fibre and coms sat links for the DSP/SBIRS sat ground stations.
• Redundancy: Of course, but it’s still a bit complicated what that means. Wearing my ICAN hat [the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – ED], this means that fundamentally there is no overwhelming technical reason why a courageous Australian government could not reasonably ask the US to move Pine Gap within, say, five years without seriously undermining US security interests, and hence not inevitably break the alliance.
On sunk cost, this is obviously important, especially for both the space-based and ground-based SIGINT surveillance systems – because of the real work done at Pine Gap in processing and analysing the data, but it could be done elsewhere. Remember, Nurrungar had big sunk costs, but it closed on short notice when the technology allowed.
Redundancy requirements apply to all parts of the system, wherever they are located. Let’s imagine the Pine Gap antennas are moved to, say, Guam: There will still be redundant comms links – by optical fibre, by communications satellite, and maybe satellite-satellite crosslinks.
About the eventuality of a degraded satellite system: One big change for both the SIGINT and early warning systems at Pine Gap is that it is no longer a standalone station – it is closely linked and integrated with the operations of other stations, through those redundant communications links.
So the question today about Pine Gap as a target in time of war is now harder to answer than it was in the Cold War.
Russia and China have both an interest and a capability in vitiating both sets of systems (Russia has much more capability). But the interlinkages mean that destroying Pine Gap would degrade the US global systems, but not destroy them outright.
How much would be degraded by a Pine Gap attack? I am sure there are people whose job it is to calculate that. My guess is that in the Russian case there would be both a strong interest and no capacity problem about attacking Pine Gap as well as its companion facilities – and having a go at the back-up facilities. Would it work? I hope we don’t find out.
By ERWIN CHLANDA