Joint Australian-US intelligence facility – Pine Gap

Joint Australian-US intelligence facility – Pine Gap

Location: 23°47’47″S, 133°44’22″E
Pine Valley, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Introduction

Pine Gap is perhaps the most important United States intelligence facility outside that country, playing a vital role in the collection of a very wide range of signals intelligence, providing early warning ballistic missile launches, targetting of nuclear weapons, providing battlefield intelligence data for United States armed forces operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere (including previously in Iraq), critically supporting United States and Japanese missile defence, supporting arms control verification, and contributing targetting data to United States drone attacks. Today it consists of two separate systems on the same site. The larger, original, portion as a command, control, downlink and processing facility for several generations of United States signals intelligence satellites in geo-stationary orbits, 36,000 kms above the earth. Since 2000, it is has also functioned as a remote ground station for the downlinking of data from two generations of United States early warning infra-red satellites also in geo-stationary orbit.

When first established by the United States in 1966 (becoming operational by 1970, and in part by early 1969)  the original purpose of Pine Gap was to collect information on the testing of Soviet missiles. During missile tests, information on the performance of various parts of the missile in flight is sent by radio signal to the test base. U.S. satellites in geo-stationary orbit sitting above the earth intercepted this missile telemetry, and downlinked the data to Pine Gap and other ground stations. That data was then processed into usable signals intelligence about the performance and capacities of new Soviet missiles. Pine Gap continues this activity today, monitoring the testing of missiles by a wide variety of countries, including North Korea.

However, in the half century since it was first built, Pine Gap and the systems of which it is a part have undergone extraordinary technical development , greatly increasing  the sensitivity and breadth of its of its signals intelligence capacities – most notably in the interception of cell phones and satellite communications. This has provided the technical basis for Pine Gap to provide data enabling the targeting of illegal U.S. drone attacks in countries with which the United States nor Australia are at war, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

There is a second aspect of Pine Gap’s activities, which was never envisaged by the government that allowed its establishment. Following the closure of the U.S. base at Nurrungar in 1999, Pine Gap has hosted a remote ground station for several generations of U.S. early warning satellites. Powerful infrared telescopes on geostationary satellites detect the thermal signature of ballistic missile launches. Today, this technology originally aimed at providing early warning of possible attack on the United States has been extended to contribute to the rapidly evolving U.S. and Japanese missile defence systems on land and sea aimed at defeating a North Korean missile attack. Pine Gap’s role is to downlink the data indicating a probable launch and compute its probable trajectory. These warning calculations are then transmitted  to the less powerful but more fine grained missile defence radars in the western Pacific, which then have a realistic chance of locking onto the missile early in its flight and destroying it. Without the “cueing” provided by Pine Gap, this is difficult, if not impossible at the present time, making PIne Gap an integral part of United States ballistic missile defence.

Sources:

The most authoritative source is the work on PIne Gap and the technological and organisational systems of which it is a part by Professor Desmond Ball of the Australian National University.

The best single introduction to the Joint Australia-US Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, outside Alice Springs, Northern Territory, remains the Report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, October 1999 on An Agreement to extend the period of operation of the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, and the testimonies to that committee by Desmond Ball and Paul Dibb. (See bibliography.)

For a substantial review of the current status of Pine Gap, see Richard Tanter, The “Joint Facilities” revisited – Desmond Ball, democratic debate on security, and the human interest, Special Report, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, 12 December 2012 (abridged earlier version appeared as American bases in Australia revisited, in Brendan Taylor, Nicholas Farrelly and Sheryn Lee (eds.) Insurgent Intellectual: Essays in honour of Professor Desmond Ball, (ISEAS, December 2012).

See also:

 Joint Defence Facility, Pine Gap

Comprehensive review of Australian and other government and non-government sources relating to the Joint Defence Facility, Pine Gap.

Pine Gap dishes/domes list

List of dishes and domes, by Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson, and Richard Tanter, (updated 2012)

Pine Gap – photokey – large

Large version of aerial photo of Pine Gap, August 2005, Digital Globe, with extant dishes and domes numbered by Desmond Ball and Bill Robinson.

Photokey - Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, by Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson and Richard Tanter (2012), derived from Google Earth imagery.   This image shows a Google Earth image of the Pine Gap facility, on which the radomes and numbers have been labelled with numbers corresponding to the accompanying "Pine Gap dishes/domes list"

See also

Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
3 February 2014