Pine Gap is the commonly used name for an Australian Earth station approximately 18 kilometres (11 mi) south-west of the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory in the centre of Australia which is operated by both Australia and the United States. Since 1988, it has been officially called the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap (JDFPG); previously, it was known as Joint Defence Space Research Facility.[1]

Partly run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the station is a key contributor to the NSA's global interception effort, which included the ECHELON program.[2][3][4][5] The unclassified cover term for the NSA facility at Pine Gap is RAINFALL.[6]


Warning sign on the road to Pine Gap

The facility consists of a large computer complex with 14 radomes protecting antennas[7] and has over 800 employees.[8] A long-term NSA employee at Pine Gap, David Rosenberg, indicated that the chief of the facility at the time of his service was a CIA officer.[9]:p 45–46[10]

The location is strategically significant because it controls United States spy satellites as they pass over one-third of the globe which includes China, the Asian parts of Russia and the Middle East.[7] Central Australia was chosen because it was too remote for spy ships passing in international waters to intercept the signal.[9]:p xxi

The facility has become a key part of the local economy.[11]

Operational history

In late 1966, a joint US-Australian treaty called for the creation of the "Joint Defence Space Research Facility".[12] The purpose of the facility was initially referred to in public as "space research".[13] Operations started in 1970 when about 400 American families moved to Central Australia.[11]

In 1999, with the Australian Government refusing to give details to an Australian Senate committee on treaties, intelligence expert Professor Des Ball from the Australian National University was called to give an outline of Pine Gap. According to Professor Ball, since 9 December 1966 when the Australian and United States governments signed the Pine Gap treaty, Pine Gap had grown from the original two antennas to about eighteen in 1999. The number of staff had increased from around 400 in the early 1980s to 600 in the early 1990s and then to an expected 1,000. The biggest expansion occurred after the end of the Cold War.[citation needed]

Ball described the facility as the ground control and processing station for geosynchronous satellites engaged in signals intelligence collection, outlining four categories of signals collected:

Ball described the operational area as containing three sections: Satellite Station Keeping Section, Signals Processing Station and the Signals Analysis Section, from which Australians were barred until 1980. Australians are now officially barred only from the National Cryptographic Room (similarly, Americans are barred from the Australian Cryptographic Room). Each morning the Joint Reconnaissance Schedule Committee meets to determine what the satellites will monitor over the next 24 hours.

With the closing of the Nurrungar base in 1999, an area in Pine Gap was set aside for the United States Air Force's control station for Defense Support Program satellites that monitor heat emissions from missiles, giving first warning of ballistic missile launches. In 2004, the base began operating a new satellite system known as the Space-Based Infrared System, which is a vital element of US missile defense.[7]

After the Cold War

Since the end of the Cold War, the station has mainly been employed with intercepting and recording weapons and communications signals from countries in Asia, such as China and North Korea. The station was active in supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks.[14]

One of the station's primary functions is to locate radio signals in the world's Eastern Hemisphere, with the collected information fed into the U.S. drone program.[15][16] This was confirmed by an NSA document from 2013, which says that Pine Gap plays a key role in providing geolocation data for intelligence purposes, as well as for military operations, including air strikes.[6]

On 11 July 2013, documents revealed through former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, showed that Pine Gap, amongst three other locations in Australia and one in New Zealand, contributed to the NSA's global collection of internet and telephone communications, which involves systems like XKEYSCORE.[17] According to other Snowden documents published in August 2017, Pine Gap is used as a ground station for spy satellites on two different missions:[6]

  • Mission 7600 with 2 geosynchronous satellites, which in 2005 provided "continuous coverage of the majority of the Eurasian landmass and Africa."
  • Mission 8300 with 4 geosynchronous satellites that covered the former Soviet Union, China, South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and territories in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Menwith Hill Station (MHS) in the UK also serves as ground station for these satellite missions.[6]


As a US military installation, Pine Gap has been targeted for protests.

  • On 11 November 1983, Aboriginal women led 700 women activists to the Pine Gap gates where they fell silent for 11 minutes to mark Remembrance Day and the arrival of Pershing II missiles at Greenham Common in Britain.[dubious ] This was the beginning of a two-week, women-only peace camp, organised under the auspices of Women For Survival. While the protest was non-violent, women trespassed on to the military space and on one day 111[18] were arrested and gave their names as Karen Silkwood, an American activist who campaigned for nuclear safety. There were allegations of police brutality and a Human Rights Commission Inquiry ensued.[19]
  • In 1986 the base was issued with an eviction notice to be "closed by the people" in a Close the Gap campaign; there was a protest by both women and men in which bicycles featured strongly.
  • In 2002 about 500 people protested at the gates of Pine Gap, including some politicians. They were objecting to its use in the then impending Iraq war and missile defence, with a massive police presence. A few were arrested after a scuffle with police.
  • In December 2005 six members of the Christians Against All Terrorism group staged a protest outside Pine Gap. Four of them subsequently broke into the facility and were arrested. Their trial began on 3 October 2006 and was the first time that Australia's Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 was used.[20] In June 2007 the four were fined $3,250 in the Northern Territory Supreme Court with the possibility of a seven-year jail term. The Commonwealth prosecutor appealed the decision saying that the sentence was "manifestly inadequate".[citation needed] The Pine Gap Four cross-appealed to have their convictions quashed. In February 2008 the four members successfully appealed their convictions and were acquitted.[21] Judges who worked on the case stated that a "miscarriage of justice" had taken place because the four were not allowed to argue before a jury that Pine Gap was a "defence facility" for Australia.[22]

See also


  1. ^ Hamlin, Karen (2007). "Pine Gap celebrates 40 years". Defence Magazine. 2007/8 (3): 28–31. ISSN 1446-229X. 
  2. ^ Dorling, Philip (26 July 2013). "Australian outback station at forefront of US spying arsenal". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  3. ^ Loxley, Adam. The Teleios Ring. Leicester: Matador. p. 296. ISBN 1848769202. 
  4. ^ Robert Dover; Michael S. Goodman; Claudia Hillebrand, eds. (2013). Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies. Routledge. p. 164. ISBN 9781134480296. 
  5. ^ "Mission Ground Station Declassification (NRO)" (PDF). 15 October 2008. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Retrieved 28 March 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d Ryan Gallagher, The U.S. Spy Hub in the Heart of Australia, The Intercept, August 20, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c Middleton, Hannah (2009). "The Campaign against US military bases in Australia". In Blanchard, Lynda-ann; Chan, Leah. Ending War, Building Peace. Sydney University Press. pp. 125–126. ISBN 192089943X. Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  8. ^ [1], 21 July 2013. Accessed 21 July 2013
  9. ^ a b Rosenberg, David (2011). Inside Pine Gap: The Spy who Came in from the Desert. Prahran, Victoria: Hardie Grant Books. ISBN 9781742701738. 
  10. ^ Harris, Reg Legendary Territorians, Harris Nominees, Alice Springs, 2007, p 93, ISBN 9780646483719.
  11. ^ a b Stanton, Jenny (2000). The Australian Geographic Book of the Red Centre. Terrey Hills, New South Wales: Australian Geographic. p. 57. ISBN 1-86276-013-6. 
  12. ^ "Treaties". www.info.dfat.gov.au. Retrieved 25 November 2017. 
  13. ^ Dent, Jackie (23 November 2017). "An American Spy Base Hidden in Australia's Outback". Retrieved 25 November 2017 – via www.nytimes.com. 
  14. ^ Coopes, Amy, Agence France-Presse/Jiji Press, "US eyes Asia from secret Australian base", Yahoo! News, 19 September 2011; Japan Times, 19 September 2011, p. 1.
  15. ^ Dorling, Philip (21 July 2013). "Pine Gap drives US drone kills". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  16. ^ Oliver Laughland. "Pine Gap's role in US drone strikes should be investigated – rights groups". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 December 2013. 
  17. ^ "New Snowden leak: Australia's place in US spying web". rt.com. Retrieved 25 November 2017. 
  18. ^ Pine Gap Protests - historical http://nautilus.org/publications/books/australian-forces-abroad/defence-facilities/pine-gap/pine-gap-protests/protests-hist/ and Kelham, Megg Waltz in P-Flat: The Pine Gap Women's Peace Protest in Hecate 1 January 2010 available on-line at http://www.readperiodicals.com/201001/2224850971.html#b
  19. ^ "The Anti-Nuclear Campaign". uq.edu.au. Retrieved 25 November 2017. 
  20. ^ Donna Mulhearn & Jessica Morrison (6 October 2006). "Christian Pacifists Challenge Pine Gap In Court" (Press release). Scoop.co.nz. Retrieved 2007-02-24. 
  21. ^ "The Queen v Law & Ors [2008] NTCCA 4 (19 March 2008)". www.austlii.edu.au. Retrieved 25 November 2017. 
  22. ^ Mike Head. "Australian court quashes convictions of protesters for entering US spy base". 

External links