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As Australia joins America in war games focused on China, the US-backed Pine Gap surveillance base has undergone its fastest ever expansion. By Brian Toohey.

Spy ships and Pine Gap

Australian Army vehicles in Queensland during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021.
Credit: Madhur Chitnis / Defence

Australian politicians and officials have abandoned their earlier criticisms of Chinese spy ships trying to gather electronic intelligence about the Talisman Sabre series of military exercises, held every two years in Queensland. 

One reason for the calmer response is that the spy ships do little harm or no harm. Another is that Australia does the same, only on a much bigger and more effective scale.

In this year’s exercises, which began on July 14 and will finish today, July 31, 17,000 military personnel from seven countries practised a joint military operation against China. The exercises were mainly held at Shoalwater Bay, on the coast of central Queensland, and included amphibious landings, air combat and ground manoeuvres.

Asked about the presence of two Chinese spy ships in the vicinity of the military exercises, a Defence Department spokesperson said: “Australia supports and respects the rights of all states to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters and air space.”

The Defence minister, Peter Dutton, said he “did not” expect the spy ships to “impede the exercises”.

The United States was confident a Chinese spy ship could not gather much useful intelligence during the 2019 exercise, otherwise it would not have let its supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan participate.

During that exercise, a US serviceman told the ABC the Americans weren’t bothered by Chinese spy ships because, “They do it to us and we do it to them.” Nevertheless, the ABC gave extensive coverage of a spy ship’s presence during that exercise.

The belated acceptance of spy ships, provided they stay in international waters, is a long way from defence officials describing a Chinese spy ship’s presence during the 2017 exercise as “unfriendly” and “provocative”. That complaint was audacious – Australia has been far more provocative. In 1992, for instance, an Australian submarine was forced to surface in Shanghai harbour after becoming entangled in fishing nets. Before retiring in 1991, the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, had ordered Oberon-class submarines to enter the harbour, despite the navy cautioning him about the risks.

Talisman Sabre 21’s focus on amphibious warfare reflects US planning to prepare for a possible invasion of disputed islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, as well as a war over Taiwan. The US contribution to Talisman Sabre 21 featured its only forward-deployed amphibious ready group. As well as three of the US Navy’s big amphibious ships, the contribution included elements of the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. A US spokesperson said the goal of the exercises was to “integrate with the Australian, Canadian, Japanese and Korean navies to further enhance their ability to respond to crises as part of a combined effort”. This contrasts with the report from a US news site, Defense One, which said the lesson from a recent US war-gaming exercise was that gathering ships, aircraft and other forces to “concentrate and reinforce each other’s combat power also made them sitting ducks”.

Australia’s navy sent big amphibious and transport ships and other vessels. The air force’s contribution included F-35 fighters, Growler electronic warfare planes, maritime patrol planes and a Wedgetail early warning and control plane that can track multiple airborne and maritime targets simultaneously. The army contributed a wide range of equipment, including its own amphibious ships.

The director of the international and security affairs program at The Australia Institute, Allan Behm, told The Saturday Paper, “There’s nothing unusual about China’s so-called spy ships: intelligence collection is what significant military powers do. Apart from traffic analysis, which might tell them where the principal communications nodes are, the two auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessels probably won’t get much real intelligence because of the quality of US and Australian encryption.” He said China’s two surveillance vessels simply reflect its increasingly activist military posture and is more a “demonstration of their reach than an indicator of their capability”.

Behm said the fact that China had to resort to two such obvious terrestrial signals collectors is “also an admission of its comparative weakness in the signals intelligence [Sigint] domain”. He said, “China – and Russia – are far behind the US in their ability to collect Sigint from space: they have nothing like the US space-based constellations deployed for tactical, operational and strategic intelligence gathering.”

Despite the limited intelligence capabilities of Chinese spy ships, many commentators point out that China has formidable forces, including large numbers of missiles, to defend the approaches to its mainland and nearby islands.

A professor of international and political studies at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Clinton Fernandes, told The Saturday Paper that the main goal of Chinese spy ships was to try to work out which of the participating vessels is the command ship so it can be sunk first. Another goal is to collect any available information on radar capabilities of the ships in Talisman Sabre 21, in order to jam or destroy them. Fernandes said the exercises could become relevant to a war over Taiwan between China and the US. He’s not predicting a war will occur, but says there is a danger of miscalculation.

Fernandes recently wrote in Arena that the most geopolitically sensitive area in the world is the Bashi Channel between southern Taiwan and the northern Philippines. He said this is the only undersea passage for Chinese submarines to move from the South China Sea into the western Pacific Ocean. If China did manage to invade Taiwan, he says, the Bashi Channel would no longer be a chokepoint and naval bases on Taiwan’s east coast would allow China’s submarine fleet to conduct patrols in deep waters of the Pacific.

Fernandes said a successful invasion would also give China access to the site of “one of the linchpins of the global economy: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s most advanced semiconductor factory”.

The US and Australia have a crucial advantage over the Chinese because they gather vastly more intelligence from space. Satellites linked to the facilities at Pine Gap outside Alice Springs and other Australian locations are particularly important. These satellites and other installations can intercept much of interest occurring in and around China. Based on earlier capabilities for the British equivalent of Pine Gap, the Australian site collects billions of pieces of electronic data every day, including communications and radar signals. Other satellites linked to Pine Gap use infrared telescopes to detect heat emissions from missiles, planes, drones and artillery for wartime targeting.

Peter Cronau, the author of a forthcoming book on Pine Gap, told The Saturday Paper that the facility’s primary function has expanded “from its early focus on passive surveillance gathering, such as collecting military communications, diplomatic traffic and mobile phone calls. It now plays a vital part in active war-fighting, such as providing targeting information for use by lethal drones, invasion forces and aerial bombing missions.”

He said the first hard evidence confirming Pine Gap’s additional role was found in secret US National Security Agency documents about Pine Gap, leaked by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden. In new research for his book, Cronau says he has found Pine Gap’s role in boosting US war-fighting capabilities is intensifying. He says there has been a rapid expansion in the capability of the US-built and -funded base, with the construction during the past year of four new satellite antennas covered by radomes. Preparations are under way for a massive new antenna that he says would amount to five new ones in a little over a year, making it the fastest period of expansion for the base, to a total of 41 satellite antennas. Cronau says three of the new antennas are designed to download data from powerful new-generation satellites that will collect information from distant war zones.

As Behm pointed out, China does not have anything resembling a similar capability. For the US, access to Pine Gap and its intelligence is much more important than whether Australia provides some peripheral military forces to a new war.

Fernandes is concerned about the preparations for war implicit in Talisman Sabre 21. He says the central policy objective of Australia’s long war in Afghanistan and its prospective role in the Taiwan Strait is the desire to achieve greater relevance to US strategic planners. In that sense, he says, Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan was a success: “The Australian flag flew alongside the Star-Spangled Banner, demonstrating Australia’s contribution to the US effort.”

But Fernandes warns that “the aftermath of a conventional war in the Taiwan Strait may be an altogether different matter. As our government is now clearly readying for this possibility, the Australian public would do well to understand the likely consequences of what may be a turning point in Australian history.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "War games and Chinese Spies".

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Brian Toohey has been a journalist for 50 years. He is the author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.