The joint facilities: still the jewel in the crown
21 Feb 2019|

Since the 1980s, Australian defence ministers have made regular parliamentary statements about the roles and functions of the US–Australia joint defence facilities (at Pine Gap, North West Cape and, until 1999, Nurrungar). These are important statements that go to the core of Australia’s alliance relationship with the United States. They are intended to establish that Australian interests are served, and our sovereignty protected, while we jointly pursue intelligence activities with the United States.

No other parliamentary statements are prepared as carefully as the ones on the joint facilities. Be assured that each word is sweated over because of the highly classified nature of these intelligence operations. It’s worth carefully noting the nuances of the language used, including changes from and similarities to past statements, and considering what is left out of the statement as much as the words delivered.

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne made his ministerial statement on the ‘Australia–United States joint facilities’ on 20 February. The previous statement on ‘Full knowledge and concurrence’ was delivered six years and five defence ministers ago by Stephen Smith on 26 June 2013. Here are my top 10 takeaways from a close read of Pyne’s statement and of the speech in reply by Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles.

Stronger regional focus

Pyne’s statement is more strongly focused on regional security than previous ones, which tended to locate the work of the joint facilities on the global strategic balance. The current statement links Pine Gap to the security of Australia’s ‘maritime trade routes’ and says:

Regional actions have the ability to adversely impact regional security and economic stability. Facilities such as Pine Gap help reduce this risk, in support of the rules based global order, by providing early warning of potentially hostile activities and developments that threaten to destabilise the region.

Rough translation: ‘China, we are watching you.’ Beijing will also note the line: ‘Potential adversaries understand that an attack on Australia is an attack on the alliance.’ This is good, solid language, not mincing words about the core strategic purpose of the alliance.

Solid take on extended nuclear deterrence

The statement also strengthens language around Australia’s support for extended nuclear deterrence (END): ‘global geopolitics have changed, but the core principles of extended nuclear deterrence have not.’ Australia is ‘an active supporter’ of END through the work of the joint facilities.

It’s noteworthy that the statement says that US nuclear deterrence deters the possibility of any type of attack on Australia, nuclear or conventional. That stands in contrast to the language of the 2017 foreign policy white paper, which couldn’t quite bring itself to use the term ‘extended nuclear deterrence’ and said: ‘only the nuclear and conventional military capabilities of the United States offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats [my emphasis] against Australia’. Pyne’s statement gives END a wider role—that’s one in the eye for the arms controllers and one up for the strategists.

Technology change and deepening cooperation

The statement puts more emphasis than its predecessors on the impact of technological change helping the joint facilities to keep pace with a more dynamic strategic environment. The word ‘change’ is used six times and ‘innovation’ three times, referring to new ‘cutting edge’ technologies. It’s difficult in an unclassified statement to do more than hint at these developments and the reality that Australia and the US continue to deepen and broaden their cooperation on innovative intelligence work. That sense of rapid change infuses the statement.

Puzzling cyber omission

Stephen Smith’s 2013 statement did a good job of setting the broader context of alliance activity, of which the joint facilities are a part. For example, he referred to the September 2011 agreement at the AUSMIN meeting in San Francisco that henceforth ‘a cyber attack on either country would trigger the mechanisms of the ANZUS Treaty’. It’s puzzling that cybersecurity isn’t mentioned in Pyne’s statement. In the very week that the prime minister revealed that a ‘sophisticated state actor’ had attacked the IT networks of our major political parties, the joint facilities statement could have usefully made the point (as set out in Smith’s statement) that such an act creates an opportunity for Australia and the United States to ‘consult together and determine appropriate options to address the threat’.

FK&C—still finger lickin’ good

‘Full knowledge and concurrence’ is the policy framework originally designed by the Hawke government to ensure Australia understands and agrees with the activities undertaken in a joint facility. The language used to describe how this works in practice is identical in the Smith and Pyne statements. The subtlety to this is that Australia claims to understand and endorse categories of activity without necessarily approving each activity.

Pyne’s statement goes further than previous ones in talking about how FK&C is used to address ‘any new purpose for any activity, or a significant change to an existing purpose’. There’s a lot of new stuff going on under those golf-ball domes, it seems.

Terrorism two-step

Pyne’s statement (like Smith’s) acknowledges that the joint facilities deliver intelligence ‘on a range of contemporary security priorities, such as terrorism’. But then we have a rather coy statement that the government couldn’t possibly comment on public theorising that Pine Gap makes a ‘contribution to US operations against terrorism’. The right language surely is ‘US and Australian’ operations against terrorism. Is the implication that we gather intelligence on terrorism but do nothing with it? A smoother formulation of words should have been developed.

Where are the Marines?

It’s disappointing that there’s no reference to the US Marine Corps’ rotational deployments in Pyne’s statement. This was fulsomely addressed by Smith, as it should have been, because it reflects a tangible American commitment to the security of Australia and of Southeast Asia. At a time when the region worries about America’s sticking power, the Marine presence should be celebrated loudly, brought in under FK&C and aligned with Australia’s strategic planning for our regional defence engagement.

Subtle alliance warnings?

Pyne’s statement warns that ‘the alliance and regional stability cannot be taken for granted’. That’s correct, but the success story of the joint facilities shows the enormity of Australia’s strategic problems if the US does indeed turn inward for a period. Without the alliance Australia is way back in the pack of regional defence players. The government and opposition clearly understand that plan A is to do everything to sustain the alliance. But every plan A needs a plan B—thinking through worst-case scenarios is what defence organisations do. So, what’s our plan B?

Intelligent bipartisanship

The Pyne and Smith ministerial statements were made in parliaments just a few months away from elections. In replying to Pyne’s statement, Marles makes it clear that he has visited Pine Gap and seen how it operates. He offers complete bipartisan support for the facilities with the nice phrase that ‘the performance of those functions almost define Pine Gap as being the centre of trust as it is expressed in our alliance with the United States’. This is a valuable promise of continuity based on genuine cooperation between the major political parties acting as shared custodians of the joint facilities.

Alliance leadership

Like the 2016 defence white paper, one finishes reading Pyne’s statement impressed with how much ‘the alliance has grown in depth and complexity over time’. That growth is apparent in every area but one—the annual AUSMIN meeting remains the sole ministerial-level mechanism to steer the alliance. Can an annual dinner and a six-hour meeting really give momentum and purposeful shape to a rapidly changing alliance? The answer is no. The ship needs a new bridge if we are to set the right direction for the future of the alliance.