What if the bomb hits the base?

COMMENT by SCOTT CAMPBELL-SMITH

Originally published in the ALICE SPRINGS NEWS, March 21, 2001, archived at https://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/0807.html

Does the presence of the “Joint Defence Facility” at Pine Gap put Alice Springs in the hot seat as international tension mounts around US plans for the National Missile Defense system (NMD, sometimes called “Son of Star Wars”)? And if so, are we prepared for it?

I’m a resident of Alice Springs – I’ve been here since 1997. Together with a friend, I decided to try to find out. I think the information we gathered gives cause for alarm, but judge for yourselves.

Anyone reading the national or international press will realise that the NMD system undermines processes for nuclear disarmament – by altering the strategic balance – and threatens to usher in a new era of the arms race.

China is upset by NMD and Australia’s support of it. Despite China’s threat of economic sanctions against Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has expressed his Government’s whole-hearted support of the project and Pine Gap’s role in it.

China seems to be the principal threat identified by the US, at least for the moment. Should the international situation ever deteriorate to the point that China attacked Pine Gap, in order to destroy a crucial part of the US intelligence system, what would happen to Alice Springs, just 19 kilometres away? What plans are in place should the base be attacked?

The simple answer is that there are none, or at least none that stand much chance of being effective. I had a series of telephone calls, visits and conversations with personnel at the base, Emergency Services, the Alice Springs Hospital and Police, which all revealed this simple fact: the plans being developed do not specifically provide for the possibility of an attack on Pine Gap and are inadequate for such an eventuality.

It has never been easy to get good, accurate information about the US base at Pine Gap. (Misinformation? That’s another story.) The last research concerning an effective emergency plan for Alice Springs in the event of nuclear attack on Pine Gap seems to have taken place in 1987, the last time the base was a really “hot” issue.

The research – a Department of Defense document, “Civil Defense Planning Against a Nuclear Attack on the Joint Defense Facilities” (prepared by the Strategic and International Policy Division and Natural Disasters Organisation) – is old, but few of the pertinent facts have changed very much. One merely needs to substitute “China” for “Russia” and try to take into account increases in population and the expansion of the town area towards Pine Gap and hence the increased vulnerability for some residents.

One of the main things that hasn’t changed is that, despite the 1987 research and subsequent recommendations, there is still no disaster plan for Alice Springs in the event of a nuclear attack on the US base.

The report cited above states (page 13, paragraphs 44-45): “Notwithstanding the remoteness of the risk of nuclear attack on the joint defense facilities, there is an overwhelming incentive for precautionary action to be taken in this area.

“Among the issues that might be examined are how best to arrange:  preparation of evacuation plans for each of the communities;

development of procedures for warning the communities about a nuclear attack;

conduct of shelter surveys and the development of shelter plans;

initiation of liaison programs by State and Territory Government emergency service organizations with local communities, to make them aware of the effects of nuclear weapons and civil defense arrangements for their protection; and

transport and communications, medical, food and clothing requirements in the event of nuclear attack. “

None of these recommendations have been followed. In the absence of the base being removed, these remain, generally, the most practical measures available, although further work could be done to refine them.

New disaster and emergency plans for the town are currently in draft form and it is not known when they will be complete. Although they do not cover the possibility of a nuclear attack, they do define the responsibilities of the various agencies. Unfortunately, there is no public comment period for these plans. Upon completion copies will be lodged with the various agencies concerned and with some libraries.

On contacting the US base I discovered that plans for base personnel in the event of an attack are not available to the public. John McCarthy, Deputy Chief of Facility, explained that the Territory Emergency Services would be responsible for assistance to the town population in the event of an attack.

This seems to imply that the base does not see itself as responsible for such a contingency and that the town of Alice Springs wears both the risk of being the potential target and the responsibility for coping with and cleaning up after an attack.

A group of doctors, coordinated by Philip Nitschke, who analysed the Department of Defence document in 1988 agreed that evacuation would be the best method of preventing injury and death on a large scale. Evacuation however fails to cover the contingency of an accidental or guerrilla attack.

Further, there is no evacuation plan for the whole town.

Emergency Services do, however, have protocols for developing evacuation plans in the event of an evacuation being necessary.

Evacuation also depends on governments having an excellent idea of potential threat and being both brave and caring enough to initiate an evacuation procedure at an early stage of any perceived threat, despite the financial costs.

Intelligence gathered at the base might well permit the Australian Government the ability to initiate such an evacuation, but in general it seems the base does not supply the Australian Government with significant intelligence.

Whether the US would supply intelligence of that sort may also depend upon strategic considerations. The US might feel compelled to maintain secrecy about how much it does know and what sources it is monitoring: an evacuation of Alice Springs might indicate to a potential enemy that the US is able to monitor messages concerning an attack on the base.

It may be relevant to note that recent bombings of Iraq did not result in any notification of the Alice Springs population that there might be a threat of counter attack.

Evacuation in response to an attack that has already been launched is not viable, as the available warning is likely to be less than one hour.

Local head of Emergency Services, Iain Burns, explained that a nuclear attack would be dealt with by the current disaster plan. He accepted that a nuclear attack would raise particularly difficult problems, especially the electromagnetic pulse (more on this next week),  which would knock out the electrical power grid and most if not all electrically dependent communication systems.

He asserted, however, that that draft disaster plan should allow a strategy to be developed that would endeavour to meet that eventuality. Specific disaster plans are only developed for scenarios that seem to be a particularly high risk. Mr Burns said a nuclear attack on Pine Gap is deemed a very, very low risk. Internal sources have told me that the Alice Springs Hospital does not have a plan to cope with a nuclear emergency, although plans are in place to deal with other sorts of emergency and large increases in patients. The hospital has apparently not stockpiled selected treatments, such as iodine tablets, against the possibility of a nuclear attack and would be unable to cope with a massive influx of burns, breaks, severe cuts and radiation poisonings.