By Brian Toohey,
Published by Community99, 15 April 2022
Developments at the U.S.-Australian satellite intelligence base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs give the United States an unprecedented ability to detect Chinese spacecraft from space and potentially destroy them.
Previously, detection was mainly based on ground-based radars, which are no longer seen as suitable for identifying these spacecraft if they were weapons. China has said it has only tested new space vehicles.
As shown below, two different versions of the latest Pine Gap satellites can do this job together. The difficulty is how to further destabilize the nuclear balance between China and the United States in order to help maintain peace.
Last October, it was reported that China had tested a nuclear-capable highly maneuverable hypersonic glider after it was lifted into space by a missile. The nuclear warheads released from US intercontinental ballistic missiles are also manoeuvrable and independently targeted. But the United States sees a serious threat from these hypersonic vehicles that can drive at more than five times the speed of sound.
This development makes Australia more closely integrated with any American offensive in space, as well as with defensive capabilities. Yet there has been no political debate in Australia about the consequences of avoiding war. No senior politician is trying to create momentum to support a new arms control deal, as Presidents Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev did in 1971, when the number of nuclear weapons escalated 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 United States clearly considers Pine Gap to be crucial in fighting war in space, these military officers did not speak to the Australian media. Instead, they choose to talk to a London-based journalist Financial Times.
It is unclear whether the government intends to inform the Australian public about developments at Pine Gap. These have implications for Australia’s own security and its potential obligations under the outer space treaty, which limits the militarization of space without completely banning it. If Pine Gap was not already a Chinese nuclear target, it probably will be now.
That Financial Times reported the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, said the United States wanted to integrate all elements of the U.S. military power with its allies. In this context, Aquilino said Australia has capabilities that make it an “extremely advanced partner”. He said increased visibility in space would help counter Chinese hypersonic weapons. “The ability to identify and track and defend against these hypersonics is really key.”
The head of the U.S. Space Command, General James Dickinson, was also interviewed for the play, saying Australia was a “critical partner” in efforts to improve space domain awareness and monitor Chinese space operations. He said, “This is the perfect place for many things to do.”
The deputy head of the U.S. Cyber Command, Lieutenant General Charles Moore, said digital convergence between the United States and Australia gives the Unit
Pine Gap’s own satellites also pick up signals from radars and weapon systems, such as ground-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, fighter jets, drones and spacecraft, along with other military and civilian communications. From Pine Gap, a huge amount of military data is fed into the American war machine in real time.ed States “the potential to conduct offensive operations.” He added that cooperation with allies created an “asymmetric advantage” over China, which lacks similar partnerships. One consequence is that China cannot gather near as much electronic intelligence from across the globe as the United States.
An idea of the growing importance of Pine Gaps for the United States is given by its extraordinary growth. Originally, it was a ground station for a single satellite to collect what is called signal intelligence as it orbited 36,000 kilometers above the Earth. There are now at least four much more powerful satellites connected to the base. Their antennas automatically intercept everything that is transmitted within their frequency range. This includes a large selection of electronic signals for intelligence analysis, including text messages, emails, phone calls and more. In addition, terrestrial antennas at Pine Gap and other Australian locations pick up a large amount of information transmitted via commercial satellites.
Pine Gap’s own satellites also pick up signals from radars and weapon systems, such as ground-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, fighter jets, drones and spacecraft, along with other military and civilian communications. From Pine Gap, a huge amount of military data is fed into the American war machine in real time.
Pine Gap operates in connection with similar interception satellites attached to a base at Menwith Hill in England. Their use to lead counterfeit drone strikes that have killed a large number of civilians has been much debated in England. The combined coverage of the two bases includes the former Soviet Union, China, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Atlantic landmass.
Pine Gap is also linked to infrared satellites, which are of great interest to Americans. Their original function, which is still important, is to provide early warning of the firing of nuclear-armed Russian or Chinese ballistic missiles. Added options now allow them to use their infrared telescopes to detect and track heat from spacecraft as well as from large and small missiles and military jets. Some satellites have very elliptical orbits that can go close to Earth instead of being 36,000 kilometers above Earth.
These satellites now provide highly coveted information about Chinese spacecraft, amplified by the data from the signal intelligence satellites. Taken together, this gives access to signals and infrared intelligence, and its location relative to China, Pine Gap plays a crucial role in the United States’ plans to fight wars in space. This capability will be enhanced by a new space-based detection and tracking system called Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR).
On April 6, the leaders of the AUKUS pact – Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison and Joe Biden – announced that they would develop hypersonic missiles and subterranean robots after previously promising to supply Australia with nuclear submarines from around 2040.
These new missiles will also travel at more than five times the speed of sound, but are air-breathing unlike those designed for use in space. The United States and Australia had already developed hypersonic cruise missiles using ramjet engines.
No figures are available, but the cost of developing, building and testing very long-range missiles will be high. A large part of the test is expected to take place 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, Secretary of Defense Peter Dutton announced that the Australian government will spend $ 3.5 billion on new missiles with a longer range of 900 kilometers for Australian ships and fighter jets.
The background to what is happening at Pine Gap illustrates how much more important the base is to the United States than any contribution Australia may have made by a pair of fighter jets or frigates to the United States’ integrated international force that was at a distance from China. At this stage, neither side of Australian policy seems willing to refuse participation in yet another US-led war that 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 Gaps’ growing importance to the United States increases Australia’s leverage with the United States to refuse to contribute ships, aircraft and troops to an integrated military force should it violate international rules. It may be harder to dismiss some aspects of Pine Gap’s operations. But there are provisions in the ground rules that Australia only acts with “full knowledge and agreement” with what is happening. Australia does not have to agree.
A further question is how to revive arms control negotiations between Russia and the United States and include China. The two large ones have 1550 intercontinental warheads, but they also have smaller ones. According to the Pentagon, China had only about 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2021 and about 200 smaller warheads. This gives China reasonable cause for concern that it does not have enough strategic warheads to be able to retaliate against a US first attack and thus perpetuate deterrence.
To overcome this, the Pentagon projects that China will have around 1,000 intercontinental warheads by 2030. All sides must reach a new agreement to make major cuts in the number of warheads if the chances of nuclear war are to be reduced.
Whether or not China develops hypersonic spacecraft, it is already committed to getting more traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles that can disperse maneuverable warheads. Restraint on all sides is necessary.
I asked the Secretary of State, Marise Payne, and her Labor counterpart, Penny Wong, if Australia could refuse to integrate with the United States and other forces if they considered a proposed deployment in violation of Article 1 of the ANZUS Treaty or the UN Charter. I also asked if Australia could withdraw its military assets from integrated US operations if there was a more urgent need for Australia to confront a local threat that was not of interest to the US. None of them responded before the print deadline.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as “Mind Pine Gap”.
See: Original Article