Authorities underrated risk to Pine Gap, Alice of a nuclear strike


This is an edited extract from Project Rainfallby Tom Gilling, published by Allen & Unwin (RRP: $32.99), available 3 September. The book tells the story of Pine Gap from its genesis in the Cold War  to its modern role as a weapon in the American ‘war on terror’. The extract below, from Chapter 18, ‘Apocalypse now?’, focusses on the early 1980s when the world was closer to nuclear war than at any time since the end of the Second World War and on the risk to Australia from the presence of the so-called ‘joint facilities’.
If nuclear war ever broke out between the superpowers, Pine Gap was certain to be a target. Both the US and Australian governments knew it. Western spies for the Soviet Union had informed Moscow in the late 1970s about the intelligence and communications functions of the Australian bases. As vital parts of the US strategic apparatus, Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape were prime candidates for Soviet nuclear strikes.
In 1980 a highly classified study was undertaken on the instructions of the prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. A collaboration between the Office of National Assessments  (ONA) and the Joint Intelligence Organisation, entitled ‘A preliminary appraisal of the effects on Australia of a nuclear war’, the paper was classified ‘Top Secret AUSTEO’.
Despite extreme security measures, it was not long before the press got wind of the  study. On 26 July 1981 the National Times published an article by Marian Wilkinson under the headline ‘Nuclear war: A 50-50 chance’. This exaggerated the ONA’s findings, which came nowhere near estimating a 50 per cent likelihood of nuclear war, but the article needled a conservative government that, like its predecessors, was more concerned with keeping secrets than in acknowledging risks.
The ONA study was not the only one to explore the possibility of an Australian armageddon. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence and its Sub-Committee on Defence Matters were nearing the end of an eighteen-month examination of potential threats to Australia’s security.
Like other parliamentary committees bent on prying into the secrets of Pine Gap, the Joint Committee was frustrated by Australian government secrecy, noting in its report that most of what was known about Pine Gap came from ‘official and unofficial sources in the United States’. Again, like other committees, it turned to Des Ball for information it could not obtain from the government. Ball made it clear that the function of Pine Gap went far beyond arms control and ‘counting numbers of missiles in the Soviet Union or the numbers of radars or whatever’, but was used for locating them and ‘allowing more accurate targeting in the development of American nuclear war fighting capabilities’.
Guided by Ball’s account of its function and capabilities, the joint committee concluded that ‘it would be prudent’ for Australian defence planners to assume that Pine Gap was on the Soviet target list and ‘might be attacked in the course of a nuclear conflict between the two superpowers’. Rather than expend one of its multi-warhead SS18 ICBMs on a ‘soft’ target such as Pine Gap, the committee expected the Soviets to use the older, less destructive and ‘relatively inaccurate’ SS11, set to detonate at an altitude of about 900 metres. Using these assumptions, the committee predicted that nuclear strikes on the three US bases would cause the following ‘immediate damage’:

a. North West Cape: complete destruction of the communications station and the nearby town of Exmouth;

b. Pine Gap: complete destruction of the facility; marginal damage (broken windows, small fires, etc.) to Alice Springs (which is approximately twenty kilometres away);

c. Nurrungar: complete destruction of the facility; damage to windows, tiled roofs and wooden buildings plus ‘spot’ fires in Woomera Village.

Drawing on a seven-page booklet published in 1964 by the Commonwealth Directorate of Civil Defence called ‘Survival from nuclear attack: Protective measures against radiation from fallout’, the committee asserted that an air burst (as opposed to a ground-level detonation) would minimise radioactive fallout. Consequently, casualties would be confined to the three facilities and ‘nearby inhabited areas’ but these casualties would be ‘drastically reduced’ if the opportunity were taken during the lead-up to nuclear war to evacuate ‘non-essential people’ from the facilities as well as from Exmouth and from Woomera Village. Evacuation of Alice Springs ‘would not be necessary’. Relatively simple precautions in Alice Springs and Woomera Village, such as ‘whitewashing and taping windows, installing shutters, cleaning up combustible material and constructing simple shelters’ would significantly reduce non-lethal casualties that might be caused by heat or collapsed roofs.
The report,  entitled ‘Threats to Australia’s Security: Their nature and probability’, was tabled in the House of Representatives on 18 November 1981.
Left: Author Tom Gilling. Photo by Ciaran Gilling. 
The press showed some interest in the joint committee’s conclusion that North West Cape, Pine Gap and Nurrungar would be on a list of Soviet nuclear targets. However, the Fraser government was no more inclined to encourage well-informed public debate about the US bases than any of its Coalition predecessors. While Fraser was powerless to suppress a report that had been tabled in the parliament, he was determined to keep the ONA paper safely under lock and key. The Australian public remained oblivious to the study’s glib acceptance of the ‘possibility, given Soviet war-fighting doctrine—which places a high value on pre-emption—that the US facilities in Australia might be targeted relatively early in a strategic nuclear war’.
As the nuclear conflict escalated and the prospects of its containment receded, we judge that nuclear attacks on some or all of these facilities would probably occur. The United States deploys about half its nuclear warheads in submarine-launched missiles. Therefore if the United States was using, or was judged likely to use, its submarine forces to strike at the opposition’s cities, the USSR would rank North West Cape as an important nuclear target.
While the ONA paper found the likelihood of nuclear strikes against Pine Gap and Nurrungar ‘may be somewhat lower’, it noted that such attacks ‘cannot be excluded’.
In fact, statements made by Soviet military commanders clearly indicated that not only could the possibility of attacks against Pine Gap and Nurrungar not be excluded, but according to Soviet military orthodoxy going back to the early 1960s they were virtually guaranteed. Doubters needed to look no further than ‘Annex A’ of the same ONA study, which under the heading ‘Soviet doctrine on the nuclear nature of world war’ quoted the following extract from Marshal Vasily Sokolovsky’s 1968 book Military Strategy, described as ‘one of the basic documents of Soviet military doctrine’:

The logic of war is such that if a war is unleashed by the aggressive circles of the United States, it will immediately be transferred to the territory of the United States of America.

Those countries on whose territory are located military bases of the United States, NATO, and other military blocs, as well as those countries which create these military bases for aggressive purposes, would also be subject to shattering attacks in such a war. A nuclear war would spread instantly over the entire globe.

It was wishful thinking to imagine that Australia was not one of those countries. In the event of a nuclear war involving Australia, the ONA paper observed that

attacks on the Joint Facilities using ground or low-altitude detonations (ground bursts) are less likely that higher altitude detonations (air bursts), which produce little local fallout; the most militarily effective form of attack on unhardened facilities such as those at Pine Gap, Nurrungar or North West Cape is generally an air burst attack, perhaps involving detonation of about a one megaton warhead [about 75 times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb] at an altitude of about 1,000–1,500 metres above the target. An explosion at this altitude would maximise the area of blast damage on the ground, and hence minimise the effect of targeting inaccuracy . . .


In the event of such attacks using single air bursts against Pine Gap and Nurrungar, and assuming no unusual targeting error, the neighbouring towns of Alice Springs (population 14,000) and Woomera (population 2,000) would not suffer major damage; there would be broken windows, the hazard of flying glass and other debris, and isolated fires. Casualties would be strongly dependent on the extent of civil defence measures. There could be some fatalities. Following any type of nuclear attack on North West Cape, the town of Exmouth (population 2,000) would probably be destroyed. Most of the radio-active debris from these air bursts would rise into the stratosphere, where it would encircle the globe. Local fallout would probably not be a major problem.

The ONA paper had the feel of a document researched and written in Canberra, to be read in Canberra. Nuclear war looked different when contemplated from Alice Springs.
In 1985 the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (NT) and Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (NT) published a booklet called ‘What will happen to Alice if the bomb goes off?’ The author was a local doctor, Peter Tait. Drawing heavily on the work of Des Ball, Tait’s booklet was in many ways the antithesis of the ONA study, highlighting phenomena (such as the ‘flash’ from a nuclear explosion) that had been minimised or ignored altogether by the authors of the ONA paper but would have a devastating effect on anyone caught in the blast.

The flash would blind anyone up to a distance of 80 kilometres away who was looking in the direction of Pine Gap at the moment of the explosion or who, noticing the flash, instinctively glanced towards it. People in the south and western town area are shielded from the flash by the ranges. People on the East Side and outside Heavitree Gap, however, would be likely to see the flash.

Heat was another phenomenon largely neglected in both the joint committee’s report and the ONA paper, despite the fact that in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions thousands of victims were incinerated. While much of Alice Springs was far enough from Pine Gap to escape the intense heat of an air blast directly above the base, some suburbs were much closer. In his booklet, Dr Peter Tait clearly identified the vulnerable areas:

Effects of the heat released by the explosion extend to about 15 to 20 kilometres. Similar to effects from the blast, most damage would occur outside Heavitree Gap.

Everything flammable within 10 kilometres of Pine Gap would catch fire. This includes the White Gum Estate, parts of the airport road and Stuart Highway, a section of Larapinta Drive, the Rangers’ Station at Simpsons Gap and all scrub and animal life in that 10 kilometre radius.

Any people in the open along the South Road, at the airport and even at Simpsons Gap would receive the equivalent to mild up to severe sunburn, depending on exactly where they were. Any people in the open west of the South Road would receive third degree burns.

Like the joint committee and the ONA, Peter Tait worked on the premise that a Soviet nuclear attack on Pine Gap would come in the form of a one-megaton ‘air burst’ roughly 900 metres above the centre of the base. Detonating a warhead at this altitude would cause maximum blast damage. But what if Soviet military planners chose to attack the bases with ‘ground bursts’, sacrificing blast damage in favour of soaking nearby civilian populations with lethal levels of radiation? According to the ONA study, strikes on either Pine Gap or Nurrungar would cause massive fallout from dirt picked up by the explosion. If the wind direction were within about 45 degrees of Alice Springs and Woomera, ‘most people not evacuated within one hour would receive fatal radiation doses’. Protective shelters, or procedures for rapid evacuation from the danger zone, would therefore be ‘vital’.
As a local, Peter Tait knew that such an outcome was relatively unlikely, since the wind in central Australia usually blows from the southeast. However, ‘if on the day [of a nuclear strike] it was blowing from anywhere in the southwest quarter, Alice Springs would be enveloped in the plume of radiation at greater than the lethal dose . . . This would happen within hours of the explosion. Everyone would die of radiation poisoning within 24 hours . . . blast and radiation effects would stress the medical services in central Australia beyond coping. Very many people would die, untreated. Large tracts of central Australia would become uninhabitable.’
Paul Dibb, a former deputy director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation, had not contributed to the ONA–JIO study, but his wide knowledge of Soviet affairs, as well as his personal contact with Soviet diplomats, made him a shrewd judge of Soviet strategy. Dibb declared the ONA’s analysis ‘far too relaxed about the Soviet nuclear threat to Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape’. He considered that major Australian cities were ‘at greater risk’ than had been portrayed and that ‘[t]hroughout the ONA assessment there was . . . a tendency to underrate the catastrophic effects of nuclear war’.
Australian pathway through Pine Gap to nuclear ban treaty
Pine Gap’s nuclear role and the alternative


  1. Sooner or later the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap (JDFPG) will become a piece of choice for whoever wishes to play chess with the USA.
    Joint in name rather than in fact, the facility is and remains an essential target in any strategic confrontation involving the US. Since the early 1980s the population of Alice Springs has raised the alarm and asked kindly the Australian counterparts of the JDFPG to reject the renewal of the lease under which the Americans have, since 1970, retained striking advantage in return for the symbolic pepper corn.
    To the detriment of the whole of Central Australia the request has fallen into deaf ears and should a nuclear device be “inadvertently” aimed at Hatt Road, no more fun run or picnic and camping in the dry river beds. Centralian life style apart, it is life itself which is in danger. With the current military escalation in the Strait of Hormuz and increasing tension between Iran and the US, the role of the Facility is questionable but the health and well-being of the 25,000 people of the region counts very thin in the eyes of Canberra.

  2. Further to the above, this nuclear threat should be an incentive for Australia at all 3 levels of government to adhere to and sign the UN Treaty for the ban of nuclear weapons.
    To reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons was a first step but the ban of all nukes is going further in ascertaining a peaceful and healthy Australia.

  3. I note this book becomes available on September 3, which this year marks the 80th anniversary of the declaration of war by Britain and France (which included Australia) on Nazi Germany following the invasion of Poland that started two days earlier.
    In that same month the German Army Weapons Bureau commenced work, and one of its first projects was research into creating a nuclear bomb. German physicist Werner Heisenberg delivered an initial paper on building a workable atom bomb before the year was over.
    Albert Einstein, whose equation of E=mc2 lies at the core of nuclear physics, had already warned the US of this research – as did British intelligence – but the warnings were largely ignored until 1941, and the Manhattan Project began shortly after Japan’s attack against Pearl Harbour forced America into the war.
    The first nuclear arms race was actually between America and Nazi Germany; the first bombs were intended for Europe but the war ended there before they were ready so ended up being used on Japan.
    Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had embarked on its own nuclear weapons research program, which was significantly aided by information obtained by spies from the Manhattan Project – and thus was born the arms race of the Cold War.

  4. In my opinion, if Pine Gap / Alice Springs are hit by nuclear weapons it will mean that the world is at war.
    We should be more worry about knowing were a lot of the commodities / food we enjoyed will come from! I prefer to go with the bang rather than die slowly of starvation and nuclear burns.

  5. Just read a comment piece by ABC North American correspondent James Glenday, who notes: “According to the Gun Violence Archive, 9,418 Americans have died from bullet wounds so far this year. 18,785 have been injured.”
    To put that in perspective, more people have been killed and injured in the USA by gun violence up to the end of August than there are residents of Alice Springs.
    That’s just this year. We think we’ve got problems?

  6. @ Evelyne: Only if we are lucky will we go out with a bang. I would imagine we may be a little sheltered by the ranges but the fallout will get us.
    It is likely to make the area uninhabitable for many many years.
    At the end of the day we are a prime target.
    The government has made us defenceless so we have to team up with someone and the only thing we have to offer is a good geographical position.
    Yep, stock up on the 3,000 SPF 🙁

  7. I concur with Maya about the need for Australia to sign (and then ratify) the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
    The impact of a nuclear war would be catastrophic for human kind and all creatures. We must take the threat seriously. I encourage people to read the recent report put out by IPAN “Choosing Humanity, Why Australia must join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”.
    Nuclear weapons are not safe in anybody’s hands.
    The report makes a telling point that the former head of US Strategic Command (General James Cartwright) stated that it “might be possible for terrorists to hack into Russian or American command and control systems and launch nuclear missiles, with a high probability of triggering a wider nuclear conflict”.
    We must rid the world of all nuclear weapons as soon as possible.

  8. In 2016 IPAN held its national conference in Alice Springs marking the 50th anniversary of the agreement between Australia and US to host the Pine Gap facilities.
    IPAN arranged a meeting with Alice Springs local government representatives where the question was asked about contingency emergency preparations in the event a superpower war threatened.
    The response was not reassuring as it seems there is no plan.
    Tom Gilling’s book is an important reminder of the wholesale devastation that would be caused at the sites where Australia hosts US military and intelligence gathering facilities.
    This now must include Darwin.
    IPAN campaigns for an independent foreign policy and total nuclear disarmament.
    IPAN calls on the Australian government to sign the UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons.

  9. Further information about Pine Gap can be found in Brian Toohey’s new book “Secret. The Making of Australia’s Security State.”
    The more I read, the more I am convinced that the Australian government continues to lead us towards something other than the peaceful future that ordinary people want and deserve.


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