Australia’s Pine Gap: Eyes From the Sky

Photograph Source: Netflix – Fair Use

“What if this isn’t China’s war?” the voice asked. “What if this is just a war with the Soviets? Can you change the plan?”

“Well, yeah,” said General Power resignedly, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan.” [Excerpt]

– Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Its IMDB premise goes like this:

Set in the intensely secretive world of intelligence and the enigmatic US/Australia joint defence facility in central Australia, the spy-thriller Pine Gap delves into the famously strong alliance between the two countries.

The facility is in the Northern Territory. It’s the occasionally controversial spy facility that Aussies and Yanks use to help battlefield soldiers and pilots all over the globe map out their strategies. It’s Pine Gap, a six-part Netflix series that streamed for one season (2018). Working together to keep Us safe — and don’t you forget that, as Duane “Lump It” Clarridge used to say to the world on behalf of the gloves-off element in government.

The series features secrets — theirs and ours — as they put it. Obama once said he loves being in the trenches with the Aussies — a little patronizing platitudinous reference to the Anzac legend — because he reckons they have Our backs. The series says otherwise. There’s a mole in the midst as the group operates to stop a terrorist plot and the aggression of China in the South China Sea. Also, presumably to be provocative, there’s an “unlikely” coupling of a African-Amerian intelligence officer and an Aussie Girl that comes across to the knowing as a homage-paying to the brassy days of Brisbane circa 1942 when racism caused a major riot, and some details of the scene tell of Black GIs moving off in the night from bars with white women. (See my flash fiction story, “The Battle of Brisbane,” that depicts the scene,)

So, there’s a mole. Not as tight knit as it seems at a time tense with Asia Pivot implications. The top Episode in the series, Number 5, goes:

As tensions in the South China Sea remain at breaking point, Gus and Jasmina’s relationship stumbles and the US prepares to launch an air strike on a Chinese-claimed island.

Holy Shit! Can you feel verisimilitude kicking in?! I wilted like an oxygen-starved nova.

Indeed, the Asia Pivot that’s been on Empire’s Mind for quite some time now is kicking into full gear. Recently the Australians, the US, and the ex-empire, UK, agreed to form a kind Three Eyes SEATO they call AUKUS. all good pals and are on the same military mission page. Let’s kill Asians, they “whisper” in the war-planning rooms (probably hosted online by Amazon web services these days) that Daniel Ellsberg describes in his marvelous, must-read memoir, The Doomsday Machine. It’s a Sam Huntington trope — The Clash of Civilizations excuse for killing. Othering for cash and sport.

AUKUS is an important alliance in any future aggression and counter-aggression in the South China Sea, but also in islands around Australia — especially Papua New Guinea (PNG), where China has made significant in-roads to vital resources there. And, in fact, is looking to challenge Australian regional hegemony, in some instances. For instance, the ABC network reports that the Chinese intend to build a “city” in Daru that has a fiendishly challenging “$204m seaport” just 200 klicks away from Oz.

The recent and seemingly increasing activity in the region, now stoked by AUKUS and Nancy Pelosi’s militancy, sees Australia muscling up its military readiness in a provocative way — accepting the US/UK proposal that it build U-boats: “Under AUKUS, the three nations will focus immediately on identifying the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia,” says the Australian Foreign Minister website announcing the project. And though the announcement makes clear no nukes “are planned” for the subs they will be upgrading other systems, including:

This may add up to a new posture, and, perhaps more significantly, have budgetary implications for Australia’s quasi-Socialist safety net (free healthcare, subsidized tertiary education, and welfare payments). The Devil is in the details of the deal.

But the AUKUS agreement, as the upgrades to long-range weapons above suggest, could be interpreted as a shift toward a potential new offensive capability aimed at China. The focus, in the narrow lens, is the idea that the US is protecting democracy in Taiwan. This is bad enough, as Peter Dutton, the Defense Minister stated last October that should the US intervene in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan that “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action.” A Chinese spokesperson returned the unthinking thing, saying, according to the Guardian,

“[It]was ‘inconceivable’ that the relationship between China and Australia would ‘take on a good momentum’ or that Australia’s overall interests would be served ‘if the Australian government bases its national strategy on such visionless analysis and outdated mentality.’”

This is contentious and a worry for Australians who recognize that China is their biggest two-way trading partner, valued at $174.7bn. Australia has many resources that China values, including coal, iron ore, LNG, and minerals such as lithium (Australia is one of the leading producers of lithium in the world), an ore which figures significantly in the near future switch to battery-operated cars. This trade relationship could be fragilized by “inconceivable” thoughts. Australian geniuses need to keep in mind that all of its major cities (six, say) are within striking distance of Chinese missiles.

Pine Gap is pivotal in any war planning for Asia. It has long been a CIA post, beginning in the Nixon 70s, when Aussies went to work on the Viet Cong, at the American behest, the way the did against ‘Johnny Turk,’ at the insistence (“Get up that bluff, lad!”) of British officers, who wouldn’t take No for an answer. But, after disturbances to its mission were neutralized — such as Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who wondered about the need for the facility and was, he felt, threatened to shut up. As Jenny Horking puts it in her biography of the PM, Gough Whitlam: His Time,

The terms covering that installation, Pine Gap, were due to be renegotiated by the government in December. The CIA’s ‘frank explanation of a problem’ in this cable concluded with a warning that ‘if this problem cannot be solved they do not see how our mutually beneficial relationships are going to continue’. To Whitlam, the cable was ‘offensive’ and its implications ‘sinister’. [28, but see pp. 1-28]

Sinister. Hocking further details Whitlam’s rejection of the American war in Vietnam, calling it “immoral,” and noting his outrage at Nixon and Kissinger’s “mentality of thuggery” when it came to essentially undermining a peace process in motion that the two orchestrated. Hocking describes it:

…the American military’s carpet bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong Harbour in North Vietnam, during a critical period of ‘peace negotiations’. For eleven days, with a civilised 36-hour halt for Christmas Day, US war planes dropped more bombs over North Vietnam than in all of the previous three years; witnesses reported B-52s taking off from Guam air-base every five minutes. Whitlam was, like many in the caucus and Cabinet, deeply distressed by this indiscriminate bombing in a war he had long described as ‘immoral’. [55]

Australians should be aware by now that the US uses other states in its proxy Pax Americana game. Kurds will never forgive, Cuban exiles will never forgive, ordinary Afghan citizens will never forgive — how they were abandoned, when their use was over; refused by thugs.

It’s been known for a long time now that Pine Gap has been crucial in providing targeting for war planes and cruise missiles in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, for instance. The facilities mission has been heavily criticized in some instances, such as providing the Saudis with geolocation information in its genocidal war in Yemen. Professor Des Ball of Australia National University has succinctly summed up the goal of work there:

“Pine Gap is engaged in “collect-it-all” surveillance, military as well as civilian, linked directly to military operations, including drone strikes.”

While much of this has seen press coverage, less known is Pine Gap’s role in the Russian-Ukraine war. Professor Tanter of the University of Melbourne told Australia’s ABC News that

[Pine Gap is collecting] telephone transmissions, radar transmissions, any kind of electronic transmissions, communications or otherwise…All those Russian tanks, those armoured cars, those aircraft — they have to communicate one way or another,” he said.

Towards the end of the piece he notes that such activity makes Pine Gap (and Australia) a target in the case of war:

There’s a very high chance that Pine Gap would be attacked quite simply because it provides critical targeting information for the United States in a nuclear war…That I’m afraid still makes Pine Gap vulnerable. One of the questions for Alice Springs citizens is always: ‘What is Pine Gap doing and how do I feel about it?’ That’s a really important question,” he said.

This question doesn’t come up often in the Australian mainstream media.

Similarly, it is quietly understood that Australia’s role in containing China puts the nation in a similar position to its role in containing Russia. As the Guardian reports,

The former British spy chief Sir Richard Dearlove has described the Pine Gap surveillance base in central Australia as “hugely important” to western intelligence collection about China’s “rather alarming” activities.

This feels queasy as subtle machinations get under way by people thinking the unthinkable and preparing for confrontation. Professor Tanter makes an important point not often acknowledged in the mainstream:

At a legal and moral level do we really want to be involved in operations which are frankly illegal under international law. In countries where we’re not at war, such as Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen, these are simply assassinations. [ABC News]

In short, crimes against humanity and ICC issues. Criminal collusion with what Whitlam described as “thugs.”

So far, there has been modest pushback against such a facility. The most recent is by a group of Christians who trespassed onto the facility grounds, with the assistance of a local aborigine group, to “lament” the presence of the Empire’s evil eye in their nation. ABC News aired a Compass episode titled “Peace Pilgrims” that documented the trespass and its aftermath of fines for the Christian peaceniks. The group said in a piece in The Pen, “The incursion into Pine Gap by this group was part of a broader and ongoing campaign to have Pine Gap closed.” And they add,

The existence of a military base under the command of another nation also undermines Australia’s sovereignty and Australian control over what happens on our soil.

Amen to that.

If only we could cancel Pine Gap the way Netflix cancelled Pine Gap. (sigh).


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.