Australia-as-Concierge: the Need for a Change of Occupation

Albert Camus, the renowned French philosopher, author and journalist, frequently recounted the story of the concierge in the Gestapo headquarters who went about her everyday business in the midst of torture explaining, “I never pay attention to what my tenants do.” 

For more than half a century, this has been the implicit disposition of Australian governments with regard to what are generally described as the joint facilities originally established by the United States at Nurrungar and Pine Gap, and the Naval Communications Station at North West Cape. [In late 1999 Nurrungar was decommissioned and its functions were transferred to Pine Gap].

This facility, was always extremely important for its role in intelligence gathering and monitoring compliance by the Soviet Union, and then Russia, with regard to nuclear arms control agreements; indeed, the functions it supported made many such arms control agreements possible, but the balance of its functions is now problematic for Australia.

Three years ago, a leading authority on the joint facilities, Professor Desmond Ball, warned of Pine Gap’s evolving role and the need to reconsider its relationship with Australian sovereignty and, effectively, the ethics and laws of war.

Accordingly, he argued the case that, because Pine Gap’s intelligence functions had become fused with operations conducted by the US “war machine,” Australia was “thoroughly embedded” in “a new phase of warfare where intelligence and unmanned vehicles of various sorts – under the water, killer satellites in space, battlefield, being fed from intelligence sources like Pine Gap, still one of the two biggest stations of the sort in the world.”  In stark terms Australian territory is not only integral to these developments but also complicit in a programme for perpetual war on a spectrum which runs from weaponised drones, through conventional military operations, to nuclear strategy and the possibility of nuclear war should nuclear deterrence fail.

While all points on this spectrum indicate the need to reconsider whether Pine Gap’s once redeeming features in arms control any longer have an overriding significance, it is now politically and ethically untenable for Australia to ignore the resurgence of the nuclear dimension.  First, the immediate context.

A recent survey in the US conducted by The Wall Street Journal revealed a rise in public support for US nuclear attacks across the globe – an indicator that the citizenry are unlikely to constrain decision-makers intent on ordering them.  This finding is of extraordinary significance given that, when a recent White House review included the declaration of a “No First Use” protocol for consideration, it met with strong opposition[1]from senior cabinet officials and US allies on the grounds that it reduced the credibility of the US deterrent overall and for the security of allies concerned with threats posed by China, North Korea, and Russia, more specifically.

In October 2016, amid rising tensions between Russian and the United States, and between China and the United States, the Pentagon announced that it had just tested the dropping of two variants of the B61 nuclear munition (without active warheads) in the Nevada desert by B-2 bombers.[2]

Add to this the fact that human decision-making time continues to be compressed and displaced; indeed, it is more appropriate to describe it as being obliterated by the development, and, in some cases, the deployment of hypersonic weapons by Russia, the United States, China, and India, which include: the US Navy’s electromagnetic “rail gun” capable of firing a projectile at Mach 7 on a target 110 miles away – flight time of less than 2 minutes – and a Russian Nuclear glider capable of travelling at Mach 10 (7,680mph / 12,360kph), and flying from Moscow to London in 13 minutes.[3]

Now, the burst-height compensating super-fuze (B-HCS-F). Perhaps understandably, the enthusiasm to read further after this collection of words is a little challenged but, like so many revolutionary developments, it is devilish in its details.  In summary form it was a relatively minor innovation component designed only to ensure the reliability and safety of US nuclear missiles under a force modernisation programme begun in 2009; there was no mention of any enhancement of existing nuclear weapons capabilities.

In an analysis published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, three of America’s most respected weapons analysts (Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, and Theodore Postol) conclude that, in reality, the installation of the  B-HCS-F has created an “astonishing” increase in the killing power of the existing US nuclear arsenal by effectively increasing it by a factor of three. Thus, in their judgment, the resulting US force structure is:

exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.

The authors note that these implications were largely concealed from the general public and even escaped both non-government policymakers and, quite likely, most government policymakers in the US despite the impact they are bound to have on global security.

To this situation should be added the increasing belligerence by the United States towards Russia, and within the context articulated by former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s warning to the Kremlin, “You try anything, you’re going to be sorry.” Thus, both the immediate past Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove, and his successor, General Curtis Scaparrotti, have followed with war talk – in the latter case (on May 6, 2016),  of the need for the alliance to be prepared to ”fight tonight.”

Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s ostensible affinity for Russia, his puzzlement as to why the US is reluctant to use its nuclear arsenal remains a source of deep concern in an era in which Russian nuclear forces maintain dangerously high level of readiness (partly as a result of technological vulnerabilities which reduce its warning time of a nuclear attack to 15 minutes or less), and the massively increased vulnerability of Russian nuclear forces as a consequence of the new fuze.

The situation, according to the Alice-in-Wonderland logic of nuclear strategy, will lead to Russia taking steps to counter the existential threat it’s facing.  The pre-delegation of launch authority, and a 100-megaton nuclear weapon delivered by means of a nuclear-powered underwater unmanned vehicle are two just two of the more likely responses.

To say the least, serious thinking and acting to reduce the risk is imperative.  Which is to say that it is no time for the Australian Government to play Camus’ concierge.

Michael McKinley taught International Relations at University of Western Australia and at ANU


[1] Colin Clark, “B-21 Bomber Estimate by CAPE: $511 A Copy,” Breaking Defense, 19 September 2016, accessed 27 January 2017.

[2] Claire Bernish, The, “War Drums Beat: US Air Force Preps for War, Drops Two Fake Nuclear Bombs,” 9 October 2016, accessed 12 January 2017.

[3] Christian Davenport, “The Pentagon’s electromagnetic ‘rail gun’ makes its public debut,” The Washington Post,” 6 February 2016, accessed 27 January 2017; Vladimir Dvorkin, “Hypersonic Threats: The Need for a Realistic Assessment,” Carnegie Moscow Center, 9 August 2016, accessed 27 January 2017; Will Edwards and Luke Penn-Hall, “The Rise of Hypersonic Weapons,” thecipherbrief, 5 October 2016, accessed 27 January 2017; Sputnik News, 13 August 2016, via global security, “Report: Russia’s Hypersonic 7680MPH Nuclear Glider Armed With ICBMs Almost Ready,” accessed 27 January 2017.


Michael McKinley taught international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics, UWA.  From 1988 to 2014 he taught international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.