By KIERAN FINNANE
Win or lose, Donald Trump, the ultimate commander of first-strike nuclear target Pine Gap, 19km from Alice Springs, will remain in office as US President until January 20 – from all reports in an unstable, unpredictable frame of mind yet with his finger still on the nuclear button.
He has already been deliberately provoking rising superpower China, in particular this year over the outbreak of the pandemic but also over with manoeuvres in relation to Taiwan. A move by China against Taiwan’s independence is widely seen as a possible trigger for military conflict.
And, in the view of David Kilcullen, if the US and China go to war “we lose cities on day one of that conflict”.
That “we” is indeed Australia – the Northern Territory in particular.
David Kilcullen is a security analyst and counterinsurgency expert, who has served in the Australian military (remaining a Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army Reserve), worked for the US Department of Defence, and advised US, British and Australian governments. Today he is a professor at Arizona State University and the University of New South Wales, Canberra.
“There’s a major US Marine presence in Darwin,” he told Paul Barclay on Radio National’s Big Ideas in July. “We’ve got joint facilities in Australia, these are nuclear targets in the event of a war between China and the US.”
The most important of Australia’s “joint facilities” is, of course, Pine Gap.
Prof Killcullen urged that Australia “statecraft” over next five years go into preventing that conflict, but the odds are against us, he warned, pointing to the work of another expert, Harvard’s Graham Allison, on historic scenarios when a rapidly rising power, like China today, was challenging an established power, like the US. Over the last 500 years a major war resulted 12 out of 16 times.
It is particularly dangerous that the conflict is starting to be seen as inevitable, said Prof Kilcullen, citing a Chinese General who last year predicted that China will fight Taiwan by 2025 and the US by 2035.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also argues that the world is facing the prospect of a hot conflict between China and the US.
And veteran foreign affairs journalist Hamish McDonald has raised the spectre of this post-election period in the US as a “window of opportunity” for Beijing to move on Taiwan “particularly if the election result is disputed and the country is plunged into a political and constitutional crisis” – which right now is a very real fear.
The Australian National University’s Paul Dibb, formerly holding senior office in defence intelligence and with the Department of Defence, thinks that the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war will deter such an eventuality (The Australian, September 21, 2020). But he also questions whether China fully comprehends what an all-out nuclear war would involve.
He recognises the higher risk of a “surprise attack” given presently increasing nationalism, assertion of territorial claims and increased deployment of military assets, and asks whether our defence organisations are sufficiently focussed on the issues.
Given these sober assessments, are we – citizens of the NT – also sufficiently focussed on the issues?
From a self-interested civilian perspective, we should at least want to know how well prepared our civil defence plans are. My difficulty in obtaining an answer to this question is not reassuring – especially after the experience of so many Australians, during last summer’s bushfires catastrophe, of services being overwhelmed and finding that they were on their own to make decisions and fend for themselves.
If this was the case with a natural disaster that was predictable albeit at unprecedented scale, why then wouldn’t we be worried about arrangements for a surprise military attack, especially with the possibility of nuclear weapons being used.
Remember how close this came in 2017 for the island of Guam, which hosts multiple US military bases, when North Korea announced plans to fire four Hwasong-12 ballistic missiles near the US territory.
In response Guam’s government issued a factsheet: “Do not look at the flash or fireball – It can blind you … Take cover behind anything that might offer protection,” it helpfully suggested.
In Australia civil defence plans were not prepared in the 1980s, at the height of Cold War anxieties about a hot war breaking out – then between the USSR and America.
In his book* about that threat, Prof Dibb wrote that it was “remiss, to say the least, of successive Australian governments not to provide even the most basic civil defence measures against nuclear attack on those facilities [Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape] – despite the fact that they were advised to do so’.
When I put questions about civil defence to the Department of Defence they recommended “touching base” with the Northern Territory Government.
When I put the same questions to the the Northern Territory Government, initially addressing them to Emergency Services, I eventually received a reply from the Department of the Chief Minister:
“The Department of Defence is best placed to assist you with these questions.”
When I told the DCM about this revolving door, I was promised a reply. It came this afternoon:
“The Australian Government is responsible for security and the protection of national interests. The Northern Territory, as with all other jurisdictions, plays a contributing role.”
The term “civil defence” it was suggested – six days after my original enquiry – is a “legacy term” with connotations of emergency plans for which there are open source documents.
I’ve had a look at the Australian Disaster Preparedness Framework, dated 2018. Some of its relevant key considerations:
Take an all-hazards view – including severe to catastrophic natural and manmade disasters, terrorism, cyber-attacks, etc. (p 17)
Identify who and what will be impacted, and for how long, by the occurrence of a severe to catastrophic disaster – through methods such as forecasting and scenario testing. (p18)
Ensure communities are at the heart of planning and coordinating capabilities and partnerships to prepare for and manage severe to catastrophic disasters. (p 21)
Ensure communities are aware of their role in sharing responsibility for the preparation for and management of severe to catastrophic disasters, (p 21)
Practice the implementation of plans through simulations and exercises to build confidence in partners and the arrangements. (p21)
Is any of that happening in the NT, and Alice Springs in particular, with a view to an attack, possibly nuclear, on military assets including Pine Gap ? I’ll keep trying to find out.
Images: President Trump in a “press conference” today (he took no questions and major broadcasters cut away from it after he started repeating baseless claims about electoral fraud). Screen capture from YouTube. • Photo of Pine Gap by Kristian Laemmle-Ruff.
*Paul Dibb, Inside the wilderness of mirrors: Australia and the threat from the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Russia today, MUP, 2018.
Kieran Finnane is the author of Peace Crimes: Pine Gap, national security and dissent, UQP, 2020. You can hear her in conversation about the book with Paul Barclay on Radio National’s Big Ideas, first broadcast on November 4.
Updated 7 November 2020, 3.55pm.