Background: Pine Gap
The Australian parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has complained that MPs are kept in the dark about information that is given to the US Congress or is publicly available. Although US Congress officials have visited Pine Gap and received classified briefings about its functions, the Treaties Committee is "entrusted with less information than can be found in a public library".
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.
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
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.
The latest system, called SBIRS (Space-Based Infra-Red System), is planned to be operational by 2004. This system is a key element of NMD.
A new Satellite Relay Ground Station at Pine Gap replaces the US base at Nurrungar and controls the US Defence Support Program (DSP) early warning satellites.
Nurrungar The main role of the US facility at Nurrungar, established in 1971 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.
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.