Pine Gap - Satellite Surveillance Base

Pine Gap is a satellite surveillance base and Australian Earth station approximately 18 km (11 mi) south-west of the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory. It is jointly operated by Australia and the United States, and 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] It plays a significant role in supporting the intelligence activities and military operations of the US.[2]

The station is partly run by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), US National Security Agency (NSA), and US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and is a key contributor to the NSA’s global interception/surveillance effort, which included the ECHELON program.[3][4][5][6] The classified NRO name for the Pine Gap base is Australian Mission Ground Station (AMGS), while the unclassified cover term for the NSA function of the facility is RAINFALL.[7]

The base

Warning sign on the road to Pine Gap





The facilities at the base consist of a massive computer complex with 38 radomesprotecting radio dishes[8] and operates with over 800 employees.[9] Former NSA employee David Rosenberg[10] indicated that the chief of the facility was a senior CIA officer at the time of his service there.[11]: p 45–46 [12]

The location is strategically significant because it controls United States spy satellites as they pass over one-third of the globe, including China, North Korea, the Asian parts of Russia, and the Middle East.[8] Central Australia was chosen because it was too remote for spy ships passing in international waters to intercept its signals.[11]: p xxi The facility has become a key part of the local economy.[13]

Pine Gap
Pine Gap is located in Australia
Coordinates23°48′00″S 133°44′15″E

Operational history

In late 1966, during the Cold War, a joint US–Australian treaty called for the creation of a US satellite surveillance base in Australia, to be titled the “Joint Defence Space Research Facility”.[14] The purpose of the facility was initially referred to in public as “space research”.[15] The Pine Gap treaty was signed on 9 December 1966 and stated that, after an initial nine years, either Australia or the US could cancel the agreement on giving one year’s notice.[16]

Operations started in 1970 when about 400 American families moved to Central Australia.[13] The function of the base when it first opened was to monitor military activities such as missile tests in Russia, China, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, and India.[17]

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the rise of the war on terror in 2001, the base has seen a refocusing from mere nuclear treaty monitoring and missile launch detection, to become a vital warfighting base for US military forces.[7] In 1999, with the Australian Government refusing to give details to an Australian Senate committee about the relevant treaties, intelligence expert Professor Des Ball from the Australian National University was called to give an outline of Pine Gap. According to 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 18 in 1999, and 38 by 2017.[18] The number of staff had increased from around 400 in the early 1980s to 600 in the early 1990s and then to 800 in 2017, the biggest expansion since 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 defence.[8]

Since the end of the Cold War, the station has mainly been employed to intercept and record weapons and communications signals from countries in Asia, such as China and North Korea. The station was active in supporting the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq and every US war since the September 11 attacks.[19][20]

The Menwith Hill Station (MHS) in the UK is operated by the NSA and also serves as ground station for these satellite missions.[7]

One of Pine Gap’s primary functions is to locate radio signals in the Eastern Hemisphere, with the collected information fed into the US drone program.[21][22] 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.[7]

On 11 July 2013, documents revealed through former NSA analyst Edward Snowden showed that Pine Gap, amongst three other locations in Australia and one in New Zealand, contributed to the NSA’s global interception and collection of internet and telephone communications, which involves systems like XKEYSCORE.[7] Journalist Brian Toohey states that Pine Gap intercepts electronic communications from Australian citizens including phone calls, emails and faxes as a consequence of the technology it uses.[23]

According to documents published in August 2017, Pine Gap is used as a ground station for spy satellites on two secret missions:[7]

  • Mission 7600 with 2 geosynchronous satellites to cover Eurasia 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 countries on the Atlantic Ocean

After the inexplicable March 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370, a Boeing 777 passenger jet, authorities suggested that Pine Gap or Jindalee (JORN) radar site might have data to help locate the missing aircraft.[24][25]

Military activities

Pine Gap’s activities have become more military-focused over time. One of its roles is to detect and geolocate the source of electronic signals, such as those emitted by mobile phones. This information is used by the US military to identify and geolocate targets of interest, which it can then attack using special forces or lethal unmanned drones, for example.[2]

Since it was established, Pine Gap has assisted the US in planning for nuclear war.[26]

Leaked Department of Defence documents revealed that satellites controlled by the Pine Gap and Joint Defence Facility Nurrungarfacilities were used during the Vietnam War to pinpoint targets for bombings in Cambodia.[27]

The Joint Defence Facility at Nurrungar relayed warnings of Scud missile launches to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) during the Gulf War. By 2002, this function had been transferred to Pine Gap.[28][29]

Location data provided by Pine Gap was used by the US to kill al-Qaeda and the Taliban soldiers with drones. US drones have also killed hundreds of civilians.[30][31]

During the 2023 Israel–Hamas war, it is alleged Pine Gap provided the IDF with communications and electronic intelligence which it had collected using two geosynchronous Orion satellites located over the Indian Ocean.[29] Antony Loewenstein said that “Australian officials at the highest level are deeply complicit and potentially exposed to war crimes trials in the future because the intelligence they are passing to the Israelis is being used to commit war crimes”.[32]

Whitlam dismissal

Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia (between 1972 and 1975), considered closing the base.[33][34] Victor Marchetti, a CIA officer who had helped run the facility, said that this consideration “caused apoplexy in the White House, [and] a kind of Chile [coup]was set in motion”, with the CIA and MI6 working together to get rid of the Prime Minister.[33][34] On 11 November 1975, the day Whitlam was scheduled to brief the Australian Parliament on the secret CIA presence in Australia, as well as it being “the last day of action if an election of any kind was to be held before Christmas”, he was dismissed from office by Governor-General John Kerr using reserve powers, described as “archaic” by critics of the decision.[33][34]

In 2020, previously confidential private correspondences between the Palace and the Governor-General were released. In one of the letters, John Kerr describes his alleged CIA connections as “Nonsense of course”, and assured the Queen of his continued loyalty.[35]

Allegations of Christopher Boyce

During his trial for espionage, US defence industry employee Christopher Boyce made a number of allegations related to the intelligence gathered at Pine Gap (including claiming that the CIA was involved in the Whitlam Dismissal). He stated that, despite the US agreeing to share intelligence from Pine Gap with Australia, he was told that the US would withhold some information from the Australians. Boyce also said that Pine Gap was monitoring telephone calls and telex messages to and from Australia of a political nature.[36]


  • On 11 November 1983, Aboriginal women led 700 women to the Pine Gap gates where they fell silent for 11 minutes to commemorate Remembrance Day and the Greenham Common protest in Britain. This was the beginning of a two-week, women-only peace camp, organised under the auspices of “Women For Survival”. The gathering was non-violent but several women trespassed onto the military base. 111[37] women were arrested on one particular day and gave their names as Karen Silkwood, an American nuclear worker who died after campaigning for nuclear safety. There were allegations of police brutality and a Human Rights Commission inquiry ensued.[38]
  • On 5–7 October 2002, a number of groups (including Quakers and the National Union of Students) gathered at the gates of Pine Gap to protest the use of the base in the then-impending Iraq war.[39]
  • In December 2005, six members of the Christians Against All Terrorism group staged a protest outside Pine Gap. Four of them later broke into the facility and were arrested. Their trial began on 3 October 2006 and was the first time that Australia’s Defense (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 was used.[40] The Pine Gap Four cross-appealed to have their convictions quashed. In February 2008, the four members successfully appealed their convictions and were acquitted.[41]
  • On 20 October 2023, pro-Palestinian demonstrators blocked the entryway to Pine Gap calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.[42]Protesters blockaded the main access road to Pine Gap in late November 2023 due to concerns that information collected at the facility was being passed to the Israel Defence Forces and being used to identify targets within Gaza during the Israel-Hamas War.[43]

In popular culture

Peter “Turbo” Teatoff is seen delivering heavy machinery to JDFPG in season 4’s 11th episode of series Outback Truckers.

Pine Gap features prominently in the third and fourth thriller novels of the Jack West Jr. series—The Five Greatest Warriors and The Four Legendary Kingdoms, respectively—by the Australian writer Matthew Reilly.

Pine Gap is featured in the 2018 Australian television series of the same name. The series is a political thriller, portraying the lives of the members of the joint American–Australian intelligence team.

In the novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost, President Richard Nixon claims that Pine Gap is actually the site of an underground facility constructed by extraterrestrials.

In 1982 the Australian band Midnight Oil released “Power and the Passion“, which contains a reference to Pine Gap.

On 6th March 2024, a YouTube Channel called Boy Boy tried sneaking into Pine Gap, but failed after one of the guards caught them when they were about to enter it.[44]

See also



  1. Hamlin, Karen (2007). “Pine Gap celebrates 40 years”. Defence Magazine. 2007/8 (3): 28–31. ISSN 1446-229X. Archived from the original on 21 August 2016. Retrieved 30 December 2010.
  2. Cronau, Peter (19 August 2017). “Leaked documents reveal Pine Gap’s role in the US fighting machine”. ABC News. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  3. Dorling, Philip (26 July 2013). “Australian outback station at forefront of US spying arsenal”. The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 28 September 2022. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
  4. Loxley, Adam (2011). The Teleios Ring. Leicester: Matador. p. 296. ISBN 978-1848769205.
  5. Robert Dover; Michael S. Goodman; Claudia Hillebrand, eds. (2013). Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies. Routledge. p. 164. ISBN 9781134480296.
  6. “Mission Ground Station Declassification (NRO)” (PDF). 15 October 2008. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 June 2014. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  7. Peter Cronau, The Base: Pine Gap’s Role in US Warfighting Archived 18 July 2022 at the Wayback Machine, Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, 20 August 2017; Ryan Gallagher and Peter Cronau, The U.S. Spy Hub in the Heart of Australia Archived 23 August 2022 at the Wayback Machine, The Intercept, 20 August 2017.
  8. Middleton, Hannah (2009). “The Campaign against US military bases in Australia”. In Blanchard, Lynda-ann; Chan, Leah (eds.). Ending War, Building Peace. Sydney University Press. pp. 125–126. ISBN 978-1920899431. Archived from the original on 14 April 2016. Retrieved 2 November 2012.
  9. [1] Archived 22 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine, 21 July 2013. Accessed 21 July 2013
  10. Channel 10 – Pine Gap secrets, 27 June 2011, retrieved 8 March 2024
  11. Rosenberg, David (2011). Inside Pine Gap: The Spy who Came in from the Desert. Prahran, Victoria: Hardie Grant Books. ISBN 9781742701738.
  12. Harris, Reg Legendary Territorians, Harris Nominees, Alice Springs, 2007, p 93, ISBN 9780646483719.
  13. 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.
  14. “Treaties”. Archived from the original on 10 November 2018. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  15. Dent, Jackie (23 November 2017). “An American Spy Base Hidden in Australia’s Outback”. The New York Times. Archived from the original on 23 October 2021. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  16. Coxsedge, Joan (2017). Nugan Hand: A Tale of Drugs, Dirty Money, the CIA and the Ousting of the Whitlam Government : an “unbank” and Its CIA Connections. Communist Party of Australia. Retrieved 11 November 2023.
  17. Gallagher, Ryan (19 August 2017). “The U.S. Spy Hub in the Heart of Australia”. The Intercept. Archived from the originalon 23 August 2022.
  18. Ball, Desmond (28 May 2015). “Expanded Communications Satellite Surveillance and Intelligence Activities utilising Multi-beam Antenna Systems” (PDF). The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability: 29. Archived (PDF) from the original on 27 April 2022. Retrieved 28 September 2022.
  19. Coopes, Amy, Agence France-Presse/Jiji Press, “US eyes Asia from secret Australian base[permanent dead link]“, Yahoo! News, 19 September 2011
  20. Japan Times, 19 September 2011, p. 1.
  21. Dorling, Philip (21 July 2013). “Pine Gap drives US drone kills”. The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 5 January 2014. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
  22. Oliver Laughland. “Pine Gap’s role in US drone strikes should be investigated – rights groups”. The Guardian. Archivedfrom the original on 10 September 2013. Retrieved 21 December2013.
  23. Snow, Deborah (31 August 2019). “Tantalising secrets of Australia’s intelligence world revealed”. The Age. Archivedfrom the original on 1 October 2019. Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  24. “Australian bases could be withholding MH370 data – 9News”. 19 March 2014. Retrieved 8 March 2024. Canberra is reportedly unwilling to disclose whether its RAAF radar was tracking the Boeing 777 as it flew. The over-the-horizon radar is capable of tracking flights as far away as 3000km from Pine Gap, enough to track the aircraft as it flew across the South China Sea… Australian Defence Department said it would not be providing comment on the surveillance system… Pine Gap’s primary function is to control US spy satellites, but no information from the base has been shared with the Malaysian government.
  25. Murdoch, Lindsay (19 March 2014). “Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: plea to US to release Pine Gap data”. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 March 2024. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia believes data from US spy satellites monitored in Australia could help find missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 but the information is being withheld. The country’s Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has specifically asked the US to share information obtained from the Pine Gap base near Alice Springs, according to the government-controlled New Straits Times newspaper.
  26. Tanter, Richard (9 December 2016). “Fifty years on, Pine Gap should reform to better serve Australia”. The Conversation. Retrieved 10 November 2023.
  27. Pilger 1992, p. 202.
  28. “Pine Gap gears for war with eye on Iraq”. The Sydney Morning Herald. 30 September 2002. Retrieved 7 November2023.
  29. Cronau, Peter (3 November 2023). “Targetting Palestine”. Declassified Australia. Retrieved 7 November 2023.
  30. Dorling, Philip (20 July 2013). “Pine Gap drives US drone kills”. The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the originalon 1 September 2022. Retrieved 7 November 2023.
  31. Wood, Richard (12 October 2019). “The story behind Pine Gap spy base”. Retrieved 10 November 2023.
  32. Boyle, Peter (14 November 2023). “Australia is ‘deeply complicit’ in Gaza genocide | Green Left”. Retrieved 14 November 2023.
  33. Pilger, John (23 October 2014). “The British-American coup that ended Australian independence”. The Guardian. Archived from the original on 27 September 2022. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  34. Zhou, Naaman (14 July 2020). “Gough Whitlam dismissal: What we know so far about the palace letters and Australian PM’s sacking”. The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 September 2022. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  35. “‘Don’t ever write and preach to me again’: One missive in the Palace letters broke all the rules”. 18 July 2020. Archived from the original on 21 July 2020. Retrieved 22 May 2021.
  36. Pilger 1992, p. 213-214.
  37. Pine Gap Protests – historical Archived 3 December 2019 at the Wayback Machine and Kelham, Megg Waltz in P-Flat: The Pine Gap Women’s Peace Protest in Hecate 1 January 2010 available on-line at Archived 23 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  38. “The Anti-Nuclear Campaign”. Archived from the original on 7 September 2008. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  39. “AABCC Pine Gap Protest Sept 2002 report”. Australian Anti Bases Coalition. 2002. Archived from the original on 31 August 2007.
  40. Donna Mulhearn & Jessica Morrison (6 October 2006). “Christian Pacifists Challenge Pine Gap In Court” (Press release). Archived from the original on 19 November 2018. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
  41. “The Queen v Law & Ors [2008] NTCCA 4 (19 March 2008)”. Archived from the original on 16 June 2020. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  42. Gardiner, Stephanie (20 October 2023). “Pro-Palestine activists block entry to Pine Gap base”. The Canberra Times. Retrieved 30 October 2023.
  43. “Why do protests keep happening at the top-secret Pine Gap military base?”. ABC News. 27 November 2023. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  44. We Snuck Into a CIA Base In The Aussie Outback, retrieved 9 March 2024


General sources

External links

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