US spy base to be built in Western Australia

wa.jpgBY PHILIP DORLING | Australian defence support for United States military operations in the Middle East will be boosted by construction of a new top-secret US military communications base in Western Australia. Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon revealed yesterday that work would begin in July or August this year on a satellite ground station for the United States Mobile Users Objective System, a new satellite communications system being deployed by the US Navy.The new US defence facility will be located with the existing Australian satellite signals intelligence facility at Geraldton, Western Australia. The base will be linked to a network of communications satellites that will provide front-line US military units with instant access to high-grade intelligence and tactical information.

Once operational, the new facility will automatically provide communications support for US military operations in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

Indeed, it will also automatically provide communications support for US military operations in much of the Asia-Pacific region.

The Defence Department announced late last year that it had finalised an agreement with the US Navy for the new satellite communications centre.

Mr Fitzgibbon’s confirmation that construction will proceed comes shortly after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s withdrawal of the bulk of Australian combat troops from Iraq.

The new Geraldton facility will be the first major US defence base to be established in Australia since the construction in the 1960s of the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory and the now closed early-warning satellite ground station at Nurrungar in South Australia.

In answering a question on notice by Labor backbencher Daryl Melham, Mr Fitzgibbon also revealed the US Navy had contracted Boeing Australia to provide construction services for the new Geraldton base. Boeing Australia already provides operational support for the existing facility at Geraldton, another Australian signals intelligence facility at Shoal Bay near Darwin, the Australian Navy’s communication station at North West Cape near Exmouth, and the Defence Communications Network facility at Deakin, ACT.

About 70 Australian contractors are working on the design of the new Geraldton building and up to 20 United States staff and 100 Australian contractors will be involved in the construction phase.

The ground station will comprise three buildings housing sophisticated electronic infrastructure, three 18m satellite dishes and two smaller antennas.

Once complete, the base will be fully automated and will require only call-out maintenance support. All costs will be carried by the US.

Informal discussions on the possible location of the facility in Australia began in 2003.

The Defence Department and the US Navy signed a classified memorandum of understanding setting out the governing arrangements for the station in November last year.

The conclusion of a secret memorandum of understanding rather than a formal treaty means the agreement has not been reviewed by Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. Mr Fitzgibbon has said the ground station will be operational by 2011.