New documents have recently been leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who, in 2013, stole classified material which has given the world an unnerving insight into the true extent of the US’s global surveillance programs. Documents recently obtained and made public by The Intercept have shed light on the role of a secretive Earth Station located just 18 kilometres from Alice Springs. While firmly on Australian territory, it appears the geolocation intelligence collected at Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap has been used to aid drone attacks launched by the US military.
While the facility itself, Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, is not a secret, references to this Earth Station appear to be made using the codename ‘Rainfall’ in these classified documents. Firstly, the use of the word Joint in its name illustrates the collaborative operations of Pine Gap, where both US and Australian personnel are employed, with information being gathered and analysed by both nations. Wider still, Pine Gap contributes to ECHELON, the global surveillance network. Its placement near Alice Springs, Australia, enables the US to control all its spy satellites which cover China, the Middle East and much of Russia while keeping the facility far enough away from spy ships to prevent them intercepting any signals.
The facility is a processing station for geosynchronous satellites which are used to collect signal intelligence related to advance weapon developments, anti-aircraft and anti-missile radar, communication satellites and microwave emissions. Alongside this data collection and analysis, Pine Gap has also been gathering information which allows for more direct action. The reports recently released, obtained by Snowden in 2013, show that much of the geolocation intelligence collected at Alice Springs is used by the US military when they are locating targets for both their special forces and drone strikes.
In recent years, the use of unmanned air vehicles, or drones, in combat has been a highly controversial topic. Attacks launched by drones has led to hundreds of civilian deaths in war zones including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Undoubtedly the involvement of an Australian-based Earth Station in these drone attack will not sit well with many Australians.
Deadly drone strikes are also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considering the potential capabilities of Pine Gap. While neither government has publically acknowledged the true power of the intelligence facility, the leaked documents, combined with previous reports, suggest the reach of the satellites are far more widespread than the public is aware of.
Geosynchronous satellites like those used at Pine Gap orbit the earth about 20,000 miles above the surface. Their surveillance technology monitors wireless communications including that sent or received by mobile phones, satellite linkups and radios. The documents detail how the satellites collect “strategic and tactical military, scientific, political, and economic communications signals”. In addition to this, they are also watching for weapon or missile tests performed by other countries, as well as stealing information from military data systems worldwide. Pine Gap provides real-time surveillance support to the US Armed Forces.
Over the past few months, since Donald Trump became president, the number of drone strikes has doubled, as have the special operations raids. These have been supported by Pine Gap. Similarly, it is unquestionable that this Earth Station is closely monitoring all movement and activity in North Korea. Irrespective of Australia’s international foreign policy when it comes to the threat of nuclear war, the town of Alice Springs is going to be playing a crucial role when it comes to any future action the US may take.