Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fitzgibbon gives go-ahead to start building secret US air base in WA

Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced yesterday that work would begin in the next month on a new US spy base in Western Australia. The satellite ground station will be sited in the existing signal intelligence facility near Geraldton 400km north of Perth. Unlike the existing operation, the new facility will be under US control and will provide satellite communications support for US Navy operations in Iraq and the Gulf. The US Navy had contracted Boeing Australia to provide construction services and when operational in 2011 will comprise of three buildings housing sophisticated electronic infrastructure, three 18m satellite dishes and two smaller antennas.

The deal was originally signed by the Howard Government in February last year after three years of secret negotiation with Washington. At the time, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the facility would provide “a crucial link” for a network of military satellites to assist US's theatre of operations in the Middle East and Asia. They quoted Philip Dorling, a visiting fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy who said that the base would make it “almost impossible for Australia to be fully neutral or stand back from any war in which the US was involved”.

Yet today’s confirmation announcement under a Labor Government went almost unnoticed. Tim Dunlop was one of the few to make comment today. Dunlop believes the story shows how defence has dropped off the political radar. He said “I can remember when this story would’ve got a lot more attention than it has” and reckons that in the past it would have generated more complaint from the left. “It’s almost like the alliance hasn’t collapsed since the change of government,” he concluded, presumably sarcastically.

Certainly other US spy bases are a target for left-wing protest, most notably Pine Gap near Alice Springs. This satellite tracking base employs nearly 1,000 American service personnel, mainly from the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office. It remains an extremely sensitive military resource and the US has never fully revealed to Australia its reasons for establishing the base. In the absence of hard information, wild theories have emerged about what is happening at the Gap. One involves the existence of a bore hole 6,000 metres beneath the facility containing an ultra low frequency antenna which is “used for secret experiments supposedly related to Nikola Tesla's resonance theories as well as low frequency communications throughout the world.”

What is true is that Geraldton facility is the first major US defence base to be established in Australia since Pine Gap was build in the 1960s. The new facility is called a Mobile Users Objective System (MUOS). In simple terms, MUOS is a satellite based mobile phone system. More technically it is a collection of high-tech satellites and associated ground facilities providing narrowband communication services for mobile and fixed site terminal users worldwide. It will provide global connectivity for voice, video and data for the US military. That’s as much as can be revealed about the Geraldton operation. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Australian Defence Department and the US Navy is classified. Once again, Australians do not get to find out what others are doing on their soil.

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