The Pine Gap base near Alice Springs is expanding, and so is its importance to the US military. It also means Australia is becoming a more obvious global target, whether we realise it or not. By Brian Toohey.

Pine Gap’s role in China–US arms race makes Australia a target

The radar domes of the joint US–Australian missile defence base at Pine Gap.
The radar domes of the joint US–Australian missile defence base at Pine Gap.
Credit: Australian Defence Force

Developments at the United States–Australian satellite intelligence base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs give the US an unprecedented capability to detect Chinese space vehicles from space and potentially destroy them.

Previously, detection relied mainly on ground-based radars, which are no longer seen as suitable for identifying these space vehicles if they were weaponised. China has said it has tested only new vehicles for space travel.

As shown below, two different versions of the latest Pine Gap satellites together can do this job. The difficulty is how to avoid further destabilising the nuclear balance between China and the US, in order to help keep the peace.

Last October it was reported that China had tested a nuclear-capable highly manoeuvrable hypersonic glide vehicle after it was boosted into space by a missile. The nuclear warheads released from US intercontinental ballistic missiles are also manoeuvrable and independently targetable. But the US sees a serious threat from these hypersonic vehicles that can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.

These developments make Australia more closely integrated with any US offensive in space, as well as with defensive capabilities. Yet there has been no political debate in Australia about the consequences for avoiding war. No senior politician is trying to build momentum to support a new arms control agreement, as presidents Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev did in 1971, when the number of nuclear weapons was escalating alarmingly, to more than 30,000 each.

The latest arms build-up is highlighted by a meeting in late March between Australian intelligence and military officials and senior US military officers at Pine Gap. Although the US clearly considers Pine Gap to be crucial to fighting war in space, these military officers did not talk to the Australian media. Instead, they choose to speak to a journalist from the London-based Financial Times.

It is not clear if the government intends to inform the Australian public about the developments at Pine Gap. These have implications for Australia’s own security and its potential obligations under the Outer Space Treaty, which limits the militarisation of space without completely banning it. If Pine Gap were not already a Chinese nuclear target, it will likely be now.

The Financial Times reported the head of the US Indo–Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, said the US wanted to integrate all the elements of the military power of the US with that of its allies. In this context, Aquilino said Australia has capabilities that make it an “extremely high-end partner”. He said enhanced visibility in space would help counter Chinese hypersonic weapons. “The ability to identify and track and defend against those hypersonics is really the key.”

The head of the US Space Command, General James Dickinson, was also interviewed for the piece and said Australia was a “critical partner” in efforts to improve space domain awareness and monitor Chinese space operations. He said, “This is the perfect location for a lot of things we need to do.”

The deputy head of the US Cyber Command, Lieutenant General Charles Moore, said digital convergence between the US and Australia gives the US the “potential to perform offensive operations”. He added that co-operation with allies created an “asymmetric advantage” over China, which lacks similar partnerships. One consequence is that China can’t gather nearly as much electronic intelligence from around the globe as the US.

Some idea of the growing importance of Pine Gap to the US is given by its extraordinary growth. Initially, it was a ground station for a single satellite to gather what’s called signals intelligence while orbiting 36,000 kilometres above Earth. There are now at least four much more powerful satellites connected to the base. Their antennas automatically intercept everything transmitted within their frequency range. This includes a huge array of electronic signals for intelligence analysis, including text messages, emails, phone calls and much more. In addition, ground-based antennas at Pine Gap and other Australian sites intercept a vast volume of information transmitted via commercial satellites.

Pine Gap’s own satellites also intercept signals from radars and weapon systems, such as surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, fighter planes, drones and space vehicles, along with other military and civilian communications. From Pine Gap, a vast volume of military data is fed into the US war fighting machine in real time.

Pine Gap operates in conjunction with similar intercept satellites linked to a base at Menwith Hill in England. Their use in directing botched drone strikes that have killed a large number of civilians has been highly contentious in England. The combined coverage of the two bases includes the former Soviet Union, China, South-East Asia, east Asia, the Middle East, eastern Europe and the Atlantic landmass.

Pine Gap is also linked to infrared satellites that are of great interest to the Americans. Their initial function, still important, is to provide early warning of the launch of nuclear-armed Russian or Chinese ballistic missiles. Added capabilities now allow them to use their infrared telescopes to detect and track the heat from spacecraft as well as from big and small missiles and military jets. Some satellites have highly elliptical orbits that can go close to Earth rather than stay at 36,000 kilometres above the Earth.

These satellites now provide much-sought-after information about Chinese space vehicles, reinforced by the data from the signals intelligence satellites. Together, this access to signals and infrared intelligence, and its location in relation to China, gives Pine Gap a crucial role in US plans for fighting wars in space. This capability will be improved by a new space-based detection and tracking system called Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR).

On April 6 the AUKUS pact leaders – Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison and Joe Biden – announced they would develop hypersonic missiles and subsurface robots after earlier promising to provide Australia with nuclear attack submarines starting from about 2040.

These new missiles will also travel at more than five times the speed of sound, but are air-breathing, unlike those developed for use in space. The US and Australia had already been developing hypersonic cruise missiles using ramjet engines.

No figures are available, but the cost of developing, building and testing very long-ranging missiles will be high. Much of the testing is expected to occur in Australia. The new missiles are also intended for use against Chinese targets.

Again, China can be expected to build more missiles with the ability to target Australian and US forces in the region. Separately, Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced that the Australian government will be spending $3.5 billion on new missiles with a longer range of 900 kilometres for Australian ships and fighter planes.

The background to what’s happening at Pine Gap illustrates how much more important the base is for the US than any contribution Australia might make of a few fighter planes or frigates to the US’s integrated international force ranged against China. At this stage, neither side of Australian politics seems willing to reject participating in another US-led war, which violates Australia’s obligations under both the UN charter and Article 1 of the ANZUS treaty. Both documents oblige Australia to reject the use of force in international relations, other than defensively.

Although rarely mentioned, Pine Gap’s growing importance to the US increases Australia’s leverage with the US to refuse to contribute ships, planes and troops to an integrated military force if it would break the international rules. Rejecting some aspect of Pine Gap’s operations might be harder. But there is provision in the ground rules for Australia to act only with “full knowledge and concurrence” with what is happening. Australia doesn’t have to concur.

A further issue is how to rekindle arms control talks between Russia and the US and to include China. The big two are allowed 1550 intercontinental warheads but they also have smaller ones. According to the Pentagon, China had only about 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2021 and about 200 smaller warheads. That gives China reasonable grounds for concern that it doesn’t have enough strategic warheads to be able to retaliate against a US first strike, thus maintaining deterrence.

To overcome this, the Pentagon projects that China will have about 1000 intercontinental warheads by 2030. All sides need to come to a new agreement to make big cuts to the number of warheads if the chances of nuclear war are to be reduced.

Regardless of whether China develops hypersonic space vehicles, it is already committed to getting more traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles that can disperse manoeuvrable warheads. Restraint on all sides is needed.

I asked the Foreign minister, Marise Payne, and her Labor counterpart, Penny Wong, if Australia could refuse to integrate with US and other forces if it considered a proposed deployment violates Article 1 of the ANZUS treaty or the UN charter. I also asked if Australia could pull its military assets out of integrated US operations, if there was a more urgent need for Australia to confront a local threat that was of no interest to the US. Neither replied by the print deadline.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Mind Pine Gap".

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