ANZUS at 70: The joint facilities in the 1980s
18 Aug 2021|

This post is an excerpt from the new ASPI publication ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, released today. Over the next few weeks, The Strategist will be publishing a selection of chapters from the book.

The late Professor Des Ball once described the joint facilities as the ‘strategic essence’ of Australia’s American alliance. Though never holding an official position, Ball, who was essentially a man of the left, was a major influence on the public debate on the joint facilities in the 1980s. That debate cemented majority public opinion in favour of the facilities. His seminal book, A suitable piece of real estate, published in 1980, fed both sides of the debate. His view, in subsequent presentations, that their value outweighed the risks was important within the Australian Labor Party and further afield.

It might be argued that Robert McNamara, US Defense Secretary from 1961 to 1968, could be seen as the founder of the modern American alliance. He disciplined and extended the American nuclear force posture. His ‘triad’ (a force of land-based missiles, bombers and strategic missile submarines) required the development of a complex of communications and surveillance technologies that took Australia from the status of a strategic backwater into the heart of the US system of global deterrence. On his watch, Australia came to host facilities for communications with submarines (North West Cape), surveillance of Soviet nuclear capabilities (Pine Gap) and early warning of Soviet attack (Nurrungar).

Those developments changed Labor policy from a flirtation with non-alignment to support for the alliance relationship. The qualifications were that Australia should have full knowledge of the joint facilities’ operations and be in a position to give concurrence to their use in war and more generally. The Whitlam government experienced something of a shock when, during the Middle East war of October 1973, North West Cape was used without prior Australian knowledge. Its concerns were resolved by an agreement that didn’t hinder the use of the facilities but assured Australia of forewarning. Whitlam had cast some doubt on the continued operation of the various joint facilities when agreements fell due for renewal. He didn’t operate on that doubt, but some in the Labor Party harboured concerns that the facilities may have played a role in his eventual dismissal.

Labor leaders were well aware that threats to remove the joint facilities could have severe electoral consequences. More than that, however, they formed the conviction that the facilities were critical for global stability, vital to the Western alliance, important for the achievement of arms control agreements and, as the decade went by, increasingly of direct relevance to Australia’s defence. They were also a ticket to the top table. Important for the US, they were a mechanism that permitted Australia considerable flexibility in advancing foreign policy initiatives that didn’t bring them into contention. Bob Hawke’s ministers developed a mantra along those lines that informed their debating points as criticisms emerged in public campaigns during their time in office.

First, there had to be honesty about the facilities’ risks and purposes. One risk was that they made Australia a nuclear target. A vital and now long-forgotten report of the Joint Parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Threats to Australian security, their nature and probability, published the year before Hawke assumed office, was helpful in that regard. It highlighted a view from Des Ball that claims of widespread nuclear targeting of Australia were ‘quite exaggerated’. He could not ‘imagine any scenarios involving nuclear bombs falling on Australian cities’. Attacks would be limited to the joint facilities. Unpleasant, obviously, but we could live with the risk: a nuclear war was most unlikely.

Among America’s allies, Australia had a unique status. Defending them, including NATO, Japan and South Korea, effectively consumed American security as it risked a devastating attack on the US if nuclear weapons were used. Australia was unlikely to find itself in a situation where aiding our defence would a risk nuclear attack on the US. Therefore, with Australia agreeing to host facilities that would draw a nuclear attack, it could be said the US was consuming ours. We were definitely burden-sharing.

As well as acknowledging the risks, ministers wanted to be able to state honestly that Australia had full knowledge of the capabilities of the facilities and concurred with their operations. In the 1980s, fortuitously, technological changes meant that the US needed to change the character of those operations. Pine Gap, in particular, went ‘real time’. Hitherto, the information it collected was largely historical. Now it was able to produce information on battlefield situations as they happened. Ministers couldn’t discuss that, but could negotiate a situation in which assertions of full knowledge and concurrence continued to be real.

In exchange for certainty and continuation, the renewal agreements for Pine Gap and Nurrungar included the incorporation of Australian personnel on every one of the four shifts and in charge of two of them. The Australian deputy in both facilities was placed in a position of command in the absence of the American commander. Furthermore, as some of the functions of the facilities served US nuclear war planning, we sought and obtained regular briefings on those functions from the Pentagon. As the Defence Minister, I sought from the Defence Department regular written reports on the facilities’ activities. I had noticed that that type of reporting was pretty thin in the department’s records. The facilities now were genuinely joint. In a real-time situation, we had to be on the spot.

How vital they were could be seen in two developments at the time. One was the acceptance by the US of Bob Hawke’s request that Australia withdraw from participating in the testing of America’s MX missile. His argument was that our participation would let loose a domestic political debate on the unrelated joint facilities. Likewise, Australia sought an assurance that the facilities wouldn’t be actively used in experimentation on President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. The Americans responded positively.

More importantly for Australia, the vital role that the facilities played in Australia’s own defence and intelligence posture became obvious to the government. It became critical for Australia that they should be sustained. Technological changes might well see their removal. For example, such changes made North West Cape no longer crucial for US submarine-launched ballistic missiles, but it was vital for Australian submarines. Hence, Australia sought control of the base. Similarly, Nurrungar became irrelevant for the Americans. It was closed, but its function shifted to Pine Gap as part of a redundant capability.

In 2010, partly to insure against the removal of an Australian bargaining chip, Australia and the US signed the Space Situational Awareness Partnership. That was followed by agreements to relocate a US space surveillance radar to Western Australia in 2014 and for the location of the US space surveillance telescope in 2015.

Occasionally, concern has arisen over alleged joint facilities’ participation in drone strike operations. The point now is that the facilities are deeply embedded in Australia’s order of battle. In large measure, we would be regionally blind and deaf without them. Their replacement would be not only unaffordable but technologically impossible. That this would arise was becoming obvious in the 1980s, as the joint character of the facilities was cemented. In a tight financial situation and a more complex regional security environment, they are invaluable.