NMD/Pine Gap/Star Wars

Americans target WA site for secret rocket base

By Sean Cowan and Ruth Callaghan, West Australian

RESIDENTS of northern WA are up in arms over a proposal to use the area to test American missiles.

United States and Australian defence officials have slated WA as home to a site from which to launch ballistic missiles for US warships to use as target practice. The plan could draw the State into an international row over weapons proliferation.

An Australian Defence Department spokesman said the North-West and Kimberley region was being considered for a facility which could be built within five years.

But he cautioned there was still a big question mark over whether the facility would go ahead. Royal Australian Navy officers and US defence officials visited the region recently to scout for a possible site.

Analysts said one site being considered was a secret location between Broome and Port Hedland where the US and Australia launched four unarmed missiles to test tracking systems in 1997.

Derby-West Kimberley Shire Council president Peter McCumstie said he had not heard of the plans. "But I will be asking about it now, you betcha," he said.

Mr McCumstie said native title would be a major consideration if a new facility was to be built.

"If they were looking for new land they would have to go way out into the desert," he said.

Labor MLC Tom Stephens said local industry could be devastated and all details should be revealed so people could make an informed reaction.

"While it may make sense to some boffins in Washington or Canberra to stick (this facility) in an isolated part of the world, it could kill the pearling, fishing and tourism industries."

Plans to build the testing site would draw Australia further into the debate over the controversial US national missile defence system.

Australian defence officials say they are resisting pressure from the US to cooperate in the test range north of Broome.

The navy prefers American help for a range on the east coast.

But defence experts said Australia was almost certainly investigating participation in a joint facility in WA, because it made strategic sense to become involved in the US missile defence scheme.

This system has been tagged "son of Star Wars" in reference to former US President Ronald Regan's proposal to shoot incoming missiles from space with a laser.

It would put missiles on Alaskan soil capable of intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Countries such as Australia could host theatre missile defence systems which could destroy short-range missiles.

China and Russia have criticised the plans for destabilising the nuclear balance.