By KIERAN FINNANE
When the lips of governments and contractors stay tightly sealed, one way to find out what’s going on at the Pine Gap military base is via Google Earth.
You have to know what you’re looking for, of course.
Last year, a senior manager for contractor AECOM, at a defence industry seminar in Alice Springs, confirmed that the base was getting a “midlife upgrade”: after 52 years they were “bringing the old girl up to more modern standards”.
He said that involved, for an unquantified spend, civil construction – roads, sub-systems – and vertical construction, meaning buildings and “other infrastructure”.
So, technological installations? the Alice Springs News asked.
“We don’t talk about that side of it.”
But Google Earth does.
Antennas, not so much the big white radomes, are the things to look for, and Richard Tanter (pictured), senior researcher with the Nautilus Institute and Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne, together with colleagues has been counting them for years.
That familiarity allowed him to notice from early April that three big new antennas and a “sprinkling of smaller new antennas” were under construction at the base, a “major expansion”. He thinks they will probably be equipped with radars although these are not visible yet.
The new antennas take the (visible) total from 33 in 2015 to 39 today. The existing six hectare OPIR (overhead persistent infra-red) compound has more than tripled in size, expanding by an additional 14 hectares.
Speaking yesterday to Phillip Adams on RN’s Late Night Live, he said the expansion involves “all of the major functions of Pine Gap” – both signals intelligence collection, “spying on the secrets of other countries”, and watching, via the infrared telescopes, the wars of Afghanistan and the Middle East and “preparing for any kind of war”.
Mr Adams was interviewing Prof Tanter and this reporter as the author of the recently published book, Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, national security and dissent.
The overhead imagery from the infrared telescopes gets “mashed” with geolocation intel, Prof Tanter explained.
For example, one part of Pine Gap helps locate a certain cell phone being used and decrypts that conversation; this intel is flashed across to Washington where it’s decided that it’s important; that’s flashed back to Pine Gap to get the infrared imagery.
All this is used in “a very concrete way by American combatant commands”, Prof Tanter told Mr Adams.
“It’s a long way from the old days of sending national level policy intel to the CIA.
“Pine Gap keeps growing.”
In due course, Prof Tanter and colleague Bill Robinson will report their analysis of this latest expansion on the Nautilus Institute site, adding to the substantial archive of information about Pine Gap already hosted there.
Image: The area of interest is at the western extremity of the base, an extension of the Relay Ground Station, which receives signals from US early warning satellites, critical to U.S. nuclear war fighting planning and operations. The expansion indicates “a greater Australian involvement” with those plans and operations, Prof Tanter told the Alice Springs News.
This Google Earth image, ©2020 Maxar Technologies, from July, shows, in a north-south line to the west of the current four big antennas housed in radomes, that the concrete foundations of all three antennas have been laid and the cylindrical base for the northernmost antenna is under construction.