Instead of fostering crucial relationships, we are allowing the US to create enemies for us with its growing strategic presence on our soil, say the academics, politicians and campaigners who gathered for the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) conference attended by news.com.au in Alice Springs this weekend.
Under a burning hot sun in the red centre, experts and citizens shared their fears over what is happening in the most remote parts of the country. These mysterious bases may be invisible to the majority of us living in the most populated regions along the coast, but could threaten the fabric of all our lives. Here’s what you need to know:
A bird’s eye view of North West Cape, one of the most structurally-intimidating military bases in Australia.
NORTH WEST CAPE — SPACE WARFARE
Perhaps the most frightening of all the bases, North West Cape is at the cutting edge of warfare — in space.
The monstrous structure sits on the northwest coast of Australia, where kilometres of wire surround a soaring central tower and others fanning off it, sucking up huge amounts of electricity.
North West Cape (also known as Harold E Holt Communications Station) was established as an American nuclear submarine communication station, with a very low frequency that could penetrate water, before being given back to Australia in the 1990s.
In 2008-10, the US and Australia agreed it would be upgraded with an advanced space radar and space telescope.
The radar was built in New Mexico by the US, with Australia paying for installation, and the space telescope comes from Antigua in the Caribbean and was once part of Cape Canaveral rocket range in Florida.
The telescope points at the sky, providing what the US calls “space situational awareness”. The rationale is that it will find space junk, as in the movie Gravity. In fact, its primary purpose will be looking for where adversaries’ satellites are in space and what they do, says Professor Richard Tanter from the School of Political and Social Studies at the University of Melbourne.
If a country like Russia, for example, was hiding a satellite’s purpose, the US might photograph or neutralise it.
Professor Tanter warns Australia could become enmeshed in anti-satellite warfare. If there was a war between US and China over the South China Sea and US could not bring a fleet near the coast any more, “the first thing they want to do is blind other side’s satellites”.
We are providing the US with extra capacity to make that happen, says Prof Tanter.
“Do we really want to be implicated in that?”
President Barack Obama met Australian troops during a visit to the Royal Australian Air Force base in Darwin in 2011. The trip had a second important purpose.
DARWIN — TROOPS ON THE GROUND
In 2011, President Barack Obama visited Darwin to announce US troops would begin making regular visits to the Northern Territory as part of the country’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.
The Gillard government agreed to the “permanent rotation of US marines and US air force aircraft”, meaning we have a constant flow of US soldiers on the ground in Australia. There are currently 1500, but this could rise to 2500.
It was this development that triggered the establishment of IPAN in 2012 as onlookers became alarmed at the move from “the invasion of nerd and computer freaks” to actual “troops in uniform with rifles”, Denis Doherty, national co-ordinator of the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign, told news.com.au.
Some of the world’s best fighters and bombers, and Osprey hybrid aircraft, now regularly fly into Darwin and nearby Shoal Bay Receiving Station and RAAF Tindal in Katherine, with huge ships coming down from a US base in Okinawa, Japan.
The purpose is officially for training, but IPAN delegates say Australia has also acquiesced to potential deployment.
A few thousand troops may sound like small beer but in conjunction with marines at US bases in Hawaii, Okinawa and Guam, it is a significant force.
Pine Gap is the desert spy base Australians know best, but there are many more like it.
PINE GAP — ‘THE POISONED HEART OF AUSTRALIA’
Pine Gap was established in Alice Springs in 1966 when the CIA came up with the idea of putting satellites 36,000 kilometres above the earth’s surface. These had giant antennae that could listen to very weak signals from Soviet missiles testing, allowing the agency to work out the capability of enemy weapons.
The spy base was placed in isolated Alice in the NT because at the time, the massive amount of data had to be collected over 130km of land.
Prof Tanter says Pine Gap rivals Uluru as the symbolic centre of Australia, with its strange, mysterious power.
“It’s the poisoned heart of Australia and it is increasingly having an effect on our defence policies and the way in which we conduct our foreign policy,” he says.
The establishment of Pine Gap heralded the start of the American early warning system, which involved powerful infra-red telescopes staring at the earth looking for the heat bloom of nuclear weapons. And it continues to grow in strength long after the Cold War, with the number of antennae growing from two or three in 1970 to 33 today.
It has also grown in capability — picking up satellite and mobile phone transmissions that are important for conducting war in Iraq and Afghanistan and monitoring people allegedly carrying out terrorist activities. It spots jet aircraft in the sky and explosions on the ground.
If a North Korean missile takes off, its trajectory can be rapidly beamed to the US, triggering a possible drone assassination. Prof Tanter says such behaviour makes Australia a target.
A sign outside restricted land in Australia’s red centre warns visitors are not welcome.
The Defence Satellite Communication Station at Geraldton in Western Australia, along with Kojarena 20km inland, was one of Australia’s spy bases. It is now shared with two large American operational military communication systems that pull down information on Indonesian and Chinese satellites from the sky. This is part of the Five Eyes surveillance system used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kojarena is creating “battlefield conditions”, says Mr Doherty, providing data a soldier in Iraq can use to ascertain what’s behind a hill — the visual, weather and so on — making it “an American war fighting base”.
Australia paid $800 million for one of the satellites used by this system. But if America does not approve of an operation the Australian Defence Force requests, for example in Timor, it can turn off our access, says Prof Tanter.
The US also has access to the Delamere Air Weapons range and the Bradshaw Ranges (which are the size of Cyprus) in the NT, and the multinational training facility of Shoalwater Bay in Rockhampton, which boasts a mock town complete with pub, mosque and church.
America trains its troops in Australia in all conditions — jungle, savannah, woodland and desert.
Mr Doherty believes there are effectively almost 50 joint bases from Broome in WA to Richmond in NSW, since the US can use all Australian bases in a poorly defined “emergency”, and regularly does. The government insists there are only two joint bases, Pine Gap and North West Cape, since troops rotate out of Darwin — a claim Prof Tanter slams as “specious”.
“If it was built by the United States, if it was paid for by the United States, and if it can only function as part of an American global technology, then it’s an American base to which Australia might have some access; greater or lesser access as time goes on.”
The US has access to hundreds of Australian bases, experts say.
So why is the US using our bases a problem? Well, we aren’t just passive bystanders.
“Australia is very, very deeply involved,” says Prof Tanter.
Aussies work in every division of Pine Gap. The Aboriginal woman who introduced Friday night’s public forum revealed her mother worked there as a cleaner in the 1960s and knew nothing about its purpose. Even the hotel where the conference takes place is a supplier for the base, providing catering and accommodation for staff.
“At least we’re not locked out the way we were before, but with that comes culpability,” says Prof Tanter.
“The government seems to lack the ability to ask the question, ‘When do Australian and American interests coincide, and when do they not?’”
He suggests nuclear war or unethical activity in countries where we are not at war might be examples of that. We could be implicated in human rights offences.
“It is embedding us in global military operations for which there is little strategic benefit for Australia.”
The agreement seems “asymmetrical” to the professor. We have spent 13 years in Afghanistan and lost 40 soldiers and seen 250 seriously wounded, he notes.
“We’re an island a long way from anywhere. The most important thing is to get over this psychology of dependence.”
We find ourselves integrated with other US bases across Asia-Pacific, with bombing information from Delamere weapons range fed back to Canberra, Hawaii and then Washington.
A Google Earth image reveals the extent of the antenna systems at Pine Gap.
Prof Tanter warns that when China looks at Australia, it will see Australia as an American base.
“I think fundamentally we have to ask is that really the way we want to go. The signal we’re sending to Americans is that if they go to war with China, sure, we’ll be part of that.”
A Defence White Paper released in March emphasised the paramount importance of the US and its role in “global security”, stressing Australia’s desire to maintain strong military ties to America and increased “interoperability” of the two countries’ systems. The paper asserts the US “will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner”.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam says the two main parties are strangely bipartisan when it comes to not criticising defence decisions.
“The Liberals don’t stand up and say, why has there been no discussion on Darwin.”
He believes our submission to US interests, particularly in the case of the Iraq invasion that ordinary Australians were against, “paved the way for IS”.
A Defence Department spokesman this week told news.com.au facilities like Pine Gap make an important contribution to national security.
He said it provides intelligence on priorities such as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and foreign military capability and weapons developments. It also supports monitoring of compliance with arms control and disarmament agreements and provides ballistic missile early warning information.
We are told mass surveillance makes us safer and in our fear we accept growing militarisation — but the conference speakers contest that these facilities most likely don’t protect us, but put us at greater risk.
Where should the decision to deploy lie? Do we need to host these bases? Should they do all the things they do?
These are the questions we don’t discuss.
Military bases are scattered throughout Western Australia and Northern Territory.