NT’s Pine Gap facility could play role in accidental nuclear exchange between US and China as tension rise

HEIGHTENED US-China tensions have increased the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange between the two superpowers — and whether or not the Northern Territory’s Pine Gap surveillance base is playing a role in hyping this up needs to be looked at.

Though the current US-China tensions has fewer nuclear risks than the Cold War-era US-Soviet relationship, the standing dynamics shouldn’t be ignored, according to new a research paper from the United States Studies Centre, based out of the University of Sydney.

As the US and China entered into a period of “intense strategic competition” the risk of accidental nuclear warfare between the two had grown.

Warning Australian politicians to be attentive, Dr Cunningham said Canberra needed to determine whether the country was inadvertently contributing to heightening nuclear risks through joint intelligence facilities on Australian soil.

This includes the Northern Territory’s Pine Gap, a joint US-Australia run station about 18 km out of Alice Springs which houses a US satellite surveillance base and Australian Earth station, and set up in the late 60s in the throes of the Cold War.

Australia’s strategy, Dr Cunningham argued, should be based on three national security interests: avoiding nuclear threats or nuclear use in a future conflict, ensuring that Chinese military actions are adequately countered at the conventional level and preserving the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Killerbots, guided by Pine Gap, same as any other weapon?

As Alice Springs hosts a military base that is intimately involved in remote warfare, Pine Gap, residents here have more than the usual stake in a debate unfolding far beyond our horizons – whether to ban or how to control Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, as the United Nations has dubbed them, or “killer robots” in popular parlance.

These are close to becoming a reality. The design capabilities being developed for driverless cars and AI-driven cameras are also being used for developing killer machines.

An Australian Airforce conference last year heard about nano-explosives with 10 times the force of conventional explosives that can be mounted as warheads on small drones. These drones can be manufactured in a 3D-printing process – tens of thousands a day with only 100 printers is already possible. The US and Chinese militaries are already working on launching large numbers in minutes, the conference was told.

The decision, in the conflict zone, of what to hit and what to avoid will have been programmed in at the design stage. Deployment and targeting will still be human-directed. It is the targeting function that makes the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap relevant, as it is already, and has for a long time been, a key provider of targeting data to piloted and remotely piloted (no-one on board) weaponised airforce assets. As such, JDFPG is part of Australian and US weapons systems and is controversially involved in drone strikes in countries with which Australia is not at war.

“Machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law,” - Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres.

Pine Gap’s role in tackling terrorism

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has delivered a stunning statement about Australia’s secretive military intelligence facility in Alice Springs that contains veiled warnings for the nation’s allies and “potential adversaries” alike.

It comes in the same week Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed foreign spies had launched a “sophisticated” cyber attack on Parliament House’s computer network and the nation’s three major political parties on February 7 and 8.

China is the key suspect, according to cyber and strategic policy expects, but authorities say they have yet to determine which country is actually behind the attack.

Today, Mr Pyne made a rare public statement about Pine Gap, a defence intelligence facility in the Northern Territory which Australia operates jointly with the US.

In his speech, Mr Pyne declared America to be Australia’s “most important ally” and notes “potential adversaries” should understand an attack on Australia is an attack on its alliance with the US.

Pine Gap facility essential to USA drone strikes

A group of Christian activists on trial in the Northern Territory Supreme Court for entering the top-secret facility are arguing they did it to defend possible victims of drone strikes.

Timothy Webb, Andrew Paine, Margaret Pestorius and James Dowling are all charged with entering the prohibited area without a permit, while Mr Webb is also charged with filming while on the base, on September 29, 2016.

They have all admitted to climbing through a 1.2-metre high barbed-wire perimeter fence, but are seeking a defence based on self-defence and the defence of others.

The accused face a maximum of seven years in jail if found guilty.

Professor Richard Tanter, from the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, has written extensively about the secretive base and was called as a witness by the accused.

He told the court Pine Gap was "perhaps the most important US intelligence facility outside the US".

He said Pine Gap was "an essential part" of US drone strikes, as it could intercept signals such as mobile and satellite phones and radio communications, and help locate the source of them.

This information is then passed onto the US National Security Agency (NSA), which can then pass it on to the military or other agencies for possible drone strikes, Professor Tanter said.

The group had plans to enter the base three nights before they were arrested, but were discovered by police when they stopped for a rest outside the perimeter fence.

Pine Gap nuclear role - and the alternative

Leading politicians in South Korea and Japan are talking up the need for their own nuclear weapons, and Donald Trump is not saying no.

So, it’s hardly surprising that 122 countries voted at the United Nations in July to pass the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons.

Rather more surprisingly, but gratifyingly, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Melbourne-born International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its work leading to the nuclear ban treaty.

At root, building more nuclear weapons and banning nuclear weapons are the two logical opposite responses to the fact that there are still thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.

With sober-minded experts putting the chances of war in Korea at 50/50, any thought of war with 75 million Koreans living in an area the size of Victoria is horrific, even if, by sheer dumb luck we avoid escalation to nuclear war.

Pine Gap will be central to US planning and operations for a Korean war, nuclear or ‘conventional’.

Here in Australia, the next task is to get the ALP to pledge to sign the ban treaty as soon as it takes office. And then, before we can ratify the treaty, the two struggles to bring Australia into compliance will begin. The first is to abandon the bipartisan commitment in our defence policy to reliance on US nuclear protection – the extended nuclear deterrence policy. The second, of course, is the reform of Pine Gap to require the removal of all nuclear-related activities from the base’s operations.