The Blue Paper Project



Pine Gap, officially known as the Joint Defence Space Research Facility, is one of the largest and most important US satellite ground control stations in the world.

Established in 1968 as a CIA intelligence base and situated in Central Australia, 19 km south-west of Alice Springs, it consists of a large computer complex with eight radomes protecting its antennae from the elements and satellite reconnaissance.

In the 1960s, there was much technical expansion of electronic communications in space. Satellites equipped with powerful receivers were strategically positioned to eavesdrop on selected communications. The satellites act as giant microphones which can accurately pick up even minor transmissions and rebroadcast them to receiving stations (such as Pine Gap) on earth, which then process or redirect the signals.

The first generation of satellites, launched in 1970 the year Pine Gap became operational, were designed to spy on Soviet missile developments and for general espionage in Asia. They were used during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, in Vietnam, and later to spy on China.

A second generation was launched in the mid-1970s, especially designed for communications surveillance -- for example, conversations and radio communications between Soviet military commanders.

The development of third generation satellites, launched in 1978, was stepped-up after the 1979 fall of the Shah forced the closure of US eavesdropping bases in Iran.

A fourth generation, Magnum, was launched on the space shuttle Discovery in January 1985. These were huge receivers designed to pick up information on Soviet missile tests, and military and diplomatic communications. From 1983, Pine Gap was expanded to receive the increased volume of signals from these satellites.

Pine Gap's most important role is processing information gathered by Rhyolite signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites and transmitting that information to the United States. These satellites act as 'vacuum cleaners', sucking up radio transmissions across a wide spectrum. Military intelligence is obtained, along with economic, political and domestic information from national and international telephone and radio communications between allies and enemies alike.

Pine Gap's satellites gather military radio transmissions, giving information on military readiness, troop and ship movements and other matters. The satellites can intercept radar emanations, allowing mapping of air defences, anti-ballistic missile radars and early-warning radars.

During the Gulf War, Pine Gap intercepted electronic and radio signals from the Iraqi forces, providing vital intelligence for US Army commanders in the Gulf. The base played a significant role in providing information on Iraqi air and ground defences, troop deployments and military infrastructure - the information supplied through Pine Gap helped to make possible the final American assault on Iraqi forces.

Warheads released by ballistic missiles during test flights emit telemetry (radio signals) which provide Pine Gap with information on missile performance. The technical characteristics of the missile can be determined to verify the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) agreements.

It is often argued that the bases are needed in the post-Cold War period for arms control verification - even though NMD will destroy the existing arms control regime. However, Pine Gap's arms treaty verification role is estimated to be as little as 0.3% of its activity.


The US facility at Nurrungar, 500 km north-west of Adelaide, was established in 1971 as a US military communications base.

Its main role was to monitor nuclear explosions and missile launch activity and convey the information to the US. It was the main overseas station for the US Defence Support Program (DSP). These functions have now been transferred to Pine Gap.

Nurrungar received data from Defence Support Program (DSP) satellites which monitor missile launches and nuclear explosions and relayed this information to the United States.

The Defense Support Program is a vital element in the US military's worldwide network. DSP consists of satellites and two main ground stations: one in Colorado (USA) and the other at Nurrungar.

The DSP satellites have infrared sensors which detect the hot exhaust plumes of missiles in their boost phase just after launching. Thus the satellites can provide early warning of a missile attack and also pinpoint the location of the launch sites.

Information on where, when and how many missiles are launches is vital to any war-fighting strategy. DSP satellites also carry NUDET (NUclear explosion DETection) sensors which can detect nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and provide information on their location and density.

Nurrungar was the command and control station for DSP-East - the satellites located over the Indian Ocean to detect missile launches and nuclear explosions in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the states of the former Soviet Union and Asia.

Between June 1989 and February 1991, the US launched three of a new generation of DSP satellites known as DSP-14. Equipped with advanced NUDET sensors and 4,000 more infrared sensors, the new satellites allow better discrimination between missiles of different countries and can provide instant warning of their launch and location.

The ALP has said that in Government it will "very carefully review the issue of possible Australian involvement in the NMD program through the role of the Satellite Relay Ground Station".

This is the same as saying it is prepared to support NMD since the Satellite Relay Ground Station at Pine Gap replaces the US base at Nurrungar and controls the US Defence Support Program (DSP) early warning satellites.