Reading in the dark

Australia and the ‘forever war’

I WAS WITH friends, high up on a range looking west and down through a long and beautiful valley just south of Alice Springs, mountains in the far distance gauzy in the late light. A few cars came and went, windows lit up in scattered houses. It was warm but we made a small fire for company. We’d brought food and wine, music and reading. The best of times, yet as the sun sank, I felt a deep melancholy. It can come at that hour, quietly, but that evening, in that place, it rushed in like a wave. I wondered why, and as I did my mind’s eye lifted like a bird over the range, across a narrow valley and into the next, to the military base known as Pine Gap. You can see its white domes against the red earth, like a cluster of giant golf balls or spider eggs, when you fly into Alice Springs. From elsewhere, it is out of sight – and out of mind for most of us most of the time, here in Alice as in the rest of the country. But it has moved to the forefront for me, ever since I followed the 2017 Supreme Court trials of six peace activists who dared to trespass into this prohibited domain.

The base had three radomes when operations began in 1970, housing antennas, the purpose of which was to collect signals intelligence from satellites; as of February 2016 there were nineteen. There are also fourteen uncovered systems, including the powerful Torus multi-beam antenna installed in 2008, capable of monitoring thirty-five or more satellites at a time. Five of its kind, all US-controlled, are installed in ground stations around the world: in the UK, Cyprus, Oman and NZ, providing automated mass surveillance around the globe – of friends and foes, civil and military. The Australian Government likes to emphasise the base’s early warning and arms-control verification capabilities. There is no transparency around its provision of intelligence to military operations, whether conventional or covert.

How do you talk about such a hermetic place – what people do there, in whose service, and what that means in the world – in a way that isn’t just dismissed as uninformed, cranky, fanciful or hopelessly naive? The activists call themselves ‘Peace Pilgrims’. They are a bit like me and my friends, in love with life and beauty. They came on foot into this valley but then kept going, into the night, cross-country, uphill and down, until they stepped through Pine Gap’s boundary fence. They had music with them, too, a lament they had composed, a guitar, a viola, a bell, a rattle. Reading as well, stored in their memories: investigative journalism, parliamentary inquiries, an elegy by Rilke, passages from the Bible, from the Buddha, other spiritual texts and the texts of nonviolent direct action by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day. They were all arrested and the charges they faced were serious.

They had lamented and prayed for the dead of war, damaged nothing, hurt no one but had done so on a ‘prohibited area for defence purposes’, and this exposed them to penalties of up to seven years in prison. In the last century, such protest actions at the base were dealt with by trespass provisions in the Commonwealth Crimes Act; convictions resulted in relatively small fines. Not so in this century, when Australian Attorneys-General have authorised prosecutions under the draconian Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. It was drafted in haste back in 1952 to deal with possible spies and saboteurs of the first British nuclear test on the Montebello Islands off WA. In the six-plus decades since, however, it has been used only against peace activists trespassing on Pine Gap: first the four Christians Against All Terrorism in 2005, and then the six Peace Pilgrims in 2016. In the Pilgrims’ 2017 trials, it was chilling to hear the Commonwealth’s silk argue that the activists’ gentle acts of nonviolent civil disobedience were a threat to national security that warranted incarceration. This was not the Australia I thought I was living in. Fortunately, the judge took a more sanguine view, issuing them with hefty fines instead.

The Australia that the activists were drawing attention to was even more troubling, a country involved through Pine Gap in extensive targeted killings by drone strike in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in countries with which neither Australia nor the US are at war: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen. Resulting civilian deaths are estimated to be several hundred at least, and counting. The strikes are guided by signals intelligence collected by the global mass surveillance network of which the so-called Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap is a critical part; the signals are analysed and, where relevant, passed on to the CIA or military command. ‘Signature’ targeting has been a thing for the CIA, authorising strikes against individuals whose identity is unknown but whose behaviour suggests affiliation with terrorist organisations. Only ‘near certainty’ of the target is required, an amendment introduced by Obama after his administration came under intense pressure over the controversial program. Think of this in relation to the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ underpinning capital punishment in the US. The strikes are essentially extrajudicial assassinations, and Australia, through Pine Gap, is complicit. How does this disrupt our sense of who we are as a nation in the family of nations?

High up on the range, my friends and I started our readings and our music, with voice, guitar and violin. Night had come. We listened in the darkness, beyond the circle of the fire and the torchlit pages, to an ancient story befitting this place where the creation stories of First Australians are felt to be alive and active in the present. The story we were reading, though, came from the other side of the world, as did we by descent. It was about the forces of destruction inseparable from the forces of creation, about the two being held in balance with one another, and the disaster, for the Earth and its humans, when they are not. That is relevant, obviously, to my theme but it is not the main thing I kept with me from that evening. Rather it was that image of reading in the dark. That is what I feel I have been doing for months as I try to tell this twenty-first century story of protest at Pine Gap and its prosecution, which also involves telling the story of Pine Gap itself. The more I have read, the more the darkness has enveloped me. I don’t mean in a psychological sense, despite the onset of melancholy from time to time. I mean in the sense of knowledge, of beginning to grasp the extent and the consequence of the activities at Pine Gap, what it is part of, where it is taking us, not just us here in Alice or in Australia, but the world. And I mean in the sense of being able to have a voice – for myself, as a writer, yes, but more importantly, for all of us, as citizens.


AT FIRST I read to try to catch up. In three decades of journalism in Central Australia I had not paid close attention to Pine Gap. The local nicknames – ‘space base’ or ‘spy base’ – served to obscure its military role in popular consciousness, and mine too. Its American personnel – unarmed, no uniforms – were part of the community, parents of your children’s friends, their basketball coach, your neighbour, fellow club member or church goer. Like many, I adopted the local etiquette of ‘not talking about the war’. The Americans in our midst are rarely embarrassed by probing questions about their jobs; the Australians who work at the base in roughly equal numbers are mostly hidden in plain view.

I had previously read and seen reports in the mainstream media about drone warfare and was repelled by its asymmetric nature: operatives administering death by keystroke from remote air-conditioned rooms, safe from danger, whether in the US or their bases elsewhere. More troubling to think of actions in the kill chain emanating from an air-conditioned room just twenty or so kilometres from my home. I had a lot to learn from the researchers, journalists and peace activists who have worked to bring this information to the attention of citizens so they can hold their governments to account – all of which established the solidity of the Pilgrims’s concerns. Detailed analysis by academic researchers revealed the base’s technological expansion, and matched it with the increased militarisation of its mission. Their work involved some great sleuthing, trawling the web for any clue on who works at Pine Gap, in what service, what they have done before and where they go next, using this information to deduce their most likely activity at the base. Sources ranged from the telephone directory of Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado to professional profiles on LinkedIn, surprisingly unguarded. Investigative journalism also provided invaluable material, including documents leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden. Among them was the text of the unclassified mission statement for the base – ‘to support the national security of both the US and Australia’ – with the explicit instruction to ‘avoid any implication that this statement is only a sanitised portion of a larger classified effort’. Australian governments have complied perfectly.

Pine Gap’s involvement in the US drone program has never been denied by Australian governments, which claim ‘full knowledge and concurrence’ with Pine Gap’s activities, have steadily overseen ever greater interoperability between our defence forces and those of the US, and have refused to engage on questions of the challenge presented by the US drone program for our obligations in relation to the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. When it came to writing, though, I wondered what difference my glossing of the literature could make. I worried too about the lack of challenge that comes with being in like-minded company. So I began to read in an even greater darkness, the writing of the military sector, taking me into the second nuclear age, the fourth industrial revolution, fifth generation warfighting – who knew? It’s hard to see what will light our way out of all this.

Example: an article about military logistics by an Australian commanding officer led me to a 2018 paper by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in which they advance a new intellectual framework for what they do: the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning. The Joint Chiefs argue that the ‘peace/war binary’ is obsolete and that the ‘institutional remnants’ of that binary must be eliminated. They want to replace it with ‘integrated campaign development’ requiring the alignment of military and civil activities along a ‘continuum of co-operation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict’. The campaign in this ‘operating environment’ – which is the world – is continuous into the foreseeable future and framed entirely in terms of projecting US national power. The Joint Chiefs talk about ‘maintenance’ of an international order, but it is one in which US advantage must prevail; everything is ­subservient to that. Nowhere in the document’s forty or so pages is there a vision projected, or any kind of reference to striving for universal peace, for ‘friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, as stated in the United Nations Charter, which both our nations have signed.

The Peace Pilgrims live so far off the Joint Chiefs’ competition continuum it’s not funny. Four of the six are Catholic Workers, the movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in Depression-era America. As such, they embrace voluntary poverty, devoting themselves, when not to peace activism, to the needs of people less well off than themselves. All six are exceptional – utterly committed but without a shred of sanctimony, fearless in court, often funny and moving – but I expect many Australians would be as perturbed as they are by the unvarnished insight the Joint Chiefs provide into the thinking of our powerful ally, the most prolific user to date of armed drone strikes in countries with which it is not at war.

This is not the future: this ‘forever war’ is already underway. And it is profoundly disturbing to watch Australia, through its government and military, embracing this world with so little awareness, let alone reflection and debate, among the general community. When I talk to the people around me about my reading in the dark, they are truly dismayed. I tell them about nano-explosives, which have ten times the force of conventional explosives and can be mounted as warheads on a wide variety of small drones. 3D-printing will allow the large-scale manufacture of thousands of small, smart, cheap drones – tens of thousands a day with only a hundred printers is already possible. The US and Chinese militaries are already working on launching large numbers in minutes. Think of them as expendable rounds of ammunition – coming at you in swarms. They won’t be controlled, even remotely, by pilots. Designers are working on autonomous navigation and targeting: drones taking over once the commander has decided where they will be sent and who or what will be targeted. Targeting is the technically more challenging problem, but applications being developed commercially for driverless cars and AI-driven cameras will be useful for improving the drones’ ‘hunting capability’. The Australian Defence Force recently selected the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper for its first armed drone acquisition. Relatively large and expensive (some $23 million apiece) and carrying a much heavier weapons payload, the Reaper might seem, in this light, old hat. But it will still have a role for some missions, just as there’ll still be a role for the older tech cruise missiles, with advanced manufacturing making them much cheaper.

In March 2018, the Australian Air Force convened its biennial Air Power Conference, titled ‘Air Power in a Disruptive World’. Its sponsors – apart from the services’ credit union, Defence Bank – were some of the corporations making their money from these latest-generation weapons systems: Rolls-Royce, L3 Technologies and Boeing. They would have every reason to be pleased with the Australian Government’s declared ambition to enter the top-ten weapons-export league within the decade. In the meantime, we are also good customers. The speech to the conference by then Defence Minister Marise Payne was long on her government’s ‘heavy’ investment (some $195 billion over ten years) in getting up to speed with the technology of war, and she ticked off Australia’s military aircraft shopping list to date: the Wedgetail, Poseidon, the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Growler. Her speech was entirely devoid of reflection about the resort to lethal force, the grave weight it is due, the ethical challenges presented by what is described as ‘disruptive technology’ but accepted, it seems, as prescriptive – entirely inevitable.

The Joint Chiefs might be worried about the way these technologies favour smaller nations over major powers, but of course the majors still have the nuclear card up their sleeve. The conference heard the case for global nuclear disarmament – that the ‘future possibility of catastrophic consequences equals the present unacceptability of possession’ – but also heard, from the keynote speaker, the case for nuclear deterrence in the context of the geopolitics of East Asia. The old ASEAN aspiration of South-East Asia as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality was a delusion, he said; coping with the reality of being at the intersection of major power competition is not ideal, but ‘the ideal is to be found only in heaven’; resolution of disputes in the South China Sea is ‘a big boy’s game’ (a telling choice of expression). This was about strategy. Getting down to actually fighting wars. More than one speaker talked of the core need to accelerate the decision cycle, to be able to make best use of the vast amount of data which Pine Gap and its network suck up. Think of artificial intelligence as our ‘intellectual partner’ in this, urged one. Digital natives, growing up with Xbox and the like, ‘need to run the show’. ‘Trust’ needs to be built, not in one another, but in AI. Russia has declared that AI is the future and that ‘whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world’; China is unambiguous about what they are planning to do and already have the advantage of military-civil fusion; when ‘our adversaries’ are going down this path our ethics could be the ‘handcuffs’ holding us back. Another speaker wondered, referring to the ‘grey area’ of lethal force short of outright conflict, whether hybrid warfare could be used for good. But what good, whose good? He didn’t go there.

The picture of the future in that darkness – for all the shiny imagery of its PowerPoints, with not a dead body in sight, nor devastated city, nor vast refugee camp – is of an intensively militarised world, with an ever-ready prospect of rapid resort to lethal force on many fronts. Pine Gap and the network it is part of are integral to this future. Hosting the base makes us all responsible: this is a conversation Australians have to have, for all its difficulty for non-specialist and ordinary citizens.


THE NIGHT SKIES in Alice Springs are crystalline, especially where I live, on five acres of bushland south of the main town. Each night I go outside to look up at the sky, its beauty, movements and seasonal changes, as a way of being conscious of where I am, so peacefully. I am not willing to let go of the belief that such peace is something all of humankind is entitled to. It’s easy to feel intimidated by the depth of what I don’t know, but it also feels dangerous to stay quiet, to let technological development and its deployment run so far ahead of the general understanding of what it is capable of and what it is actually doing – let alone of its implications for the kind of nation and place in the world that we are said to be defending.

When the Peace Pilgrims tried to bring evidence into court of the lethality of what Pine Gap does, the Commonwealth’s silk repeatedly objected. The testimony was being offered by an academic expert in the field; the objection was that the knowledge was based on his own research: ‘What can the Crown do with it, your Honour? We can’t cross-examine in the dark.’

I had to laugh. Exactly the Pilgrims’ point.



Selected references

For technical information about Pine Gap:

Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson, and Richard Tanter, ‘The Antennas of Pine Gap’, NAPSNet Special Report, 22 February 2016, at, accessed 22 May 2018.

Richard Tanter, ‘Our Poisoned Heart: the transformation of Pine Gap’, Arena Magazine, Issue 144 (Oct/Nov 2016),, accessed 31 May 2018


On the military mission of Pine Gap:

Desmond Ball, Bill Robinson, and Richard Tanter, ‘The militarisation of Pine Gap: Organisations and Personnel’, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability Special Report, 14 August 2015, p 15 & fn 21, p 21 & fn 34, pp 24-5 & fn 48, ibid, p 28 & fn 76,, accessed 21 May 2018.

David Rosenberg, Inside Pine Gap: the spy who came in from the desert, Hardie Grant Books, 2011.

Philip Dorling, ‘Pine Gap drives US drone kills’, The Sydney Morning Herald,  21 July 2013,, accessed 23 April 2018.


For leaked documents by Edward Snowden:

Peter Cronau, ‘The Base: Pine Gap’s role in US Warfighting’, ABC Radio National, Background Briefing, 20 August 2017,, accessed 24 May 2018.


On the use of the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 to prosecute protesters:

Russell Goldflam, ‘Satellites, Citizens And Secrets: R v Law & Others’, APSNet Policy Forum, 1 September 2008,, accessed 20 November 2017

Kieran Finnane, multiple reports for Alice Springs News Online and a feature article, ‘Into the breach’, The Saturday Paper, 9 December 2017.


On the US use of weaponised drones:

Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory, translated from the French by Janet Loyd, Penguin Books UK, 2015.

‘Legality of Drone warfare’, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Explainer,, accessed 23 April 2018

Rachel Stohl, ‘An Action Plan on US Drone Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration’, The Stimson Center, 7 June 2018.

Jo Becker and Scott Shane, ’Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will’, New York Times, 29 May 2012,, accessed 30.12.18

Ryan Deveraux, ‘Manhunting in the Hindu Kush’, The Intercept, 15 October 2015,, accessed 11 June 2018.

Nick McDonnell, The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars, Blue Rider Press | September 2018. Excerpt ‘The Targeting and Killing of a Helmandi Combatant’, Longreads,, accessed 5 October 2018.

Greg Miller, ‘Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing’, Washington Post, 27 December 2011,, accessed 11 June 2018.

U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities, 23 May 2013,, accessed 27 June 2018.


For civilian casualties estimates:

Jessica Purkiss, ‘Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times more strikes than Bush’, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, January 17, 2017., accessed 21 May 2018. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism logs put the figure between 384 and 807.

Jessica Purkiss, ‘Trump’s first year in numbers: strikes triple in Yemen and Somalia’, 19 January 2018,, accessed 21 May 2018. This article also provides estimates for Afghanistan.


On Pine Gap’s involvement with drone targeting:

Malcolm Fraser with Cain Roberts, Dangerous Allies, Melbourne University Press, 2014.

Dylan Welch, ‘Top intelligence analyst slams Pine Gap's role in American drone strikes’. ABC, 7.30 Report, 13 August 2014, transcript,, accessed 13 June 2018.

Paul Maley, ‘Pine Gap “supports US drone hits”’, The Australian, 20 May 2014,, accessed 5 June 2018.

Philip Dorling, ‘Pine Gap drives US drone kills’, The Sydney Morning Herald,  21 July 2013,, accessed 23 April 2018.

Stephen Smith, Ministerial Statement, Full Knowledge and Concurrence, Parliament of Australia, House Hansard, 26 June 2013,;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F4d60a662-a538-4e48-b2d8-9a97b8276c77%2F0016%22;src1=sm1, accessed 22 May 2018.


On new military developments:

Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Department of Defense, Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, 16 March 2018,, accessed 3 October 2018.


On nano explosives, 3D-printing of drones, swarms, AI improvements, role for older tech missiles:

Dr Thomas X Hammes, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, ‘Uninhabited Aerial Systems: Disruption or Prescription?’, paper presented to 2018 Airpower Conference,  Airpower in a Disruptive World, 20-21 March 2018, National Convention Centre Canberra, proceedings archived at, accessed 8 October 2018

‘General Atomics Reaper selected for Australia's first armed remotely piloted aircraft system’, Joint Media Release, Minister for Defence, Christopher Pyne and Minister for Defence Industry, Steven Ciobo, 16 November 2018,, accessed 1 January 2019.

David Wroe, ‘Australia to buy armed Reaper drones in shift towards pilotless future’, Sydney Morning Herald,15 November 2018,, accessed 1 January 2019.

Gareth Hutchens, ‘Australia unveils plan to become one of world’s top 10 arms exporters’, The Guardian, 29 January 2018,, accessed 13 July 2018

Government’s ‘heavy’ investment in technology of war: Marise Payne, Minister’s Address, 2018 Airpower Conference, op.cit.

Australian Government, Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper,, p 122, accessed 15 June 2018.

Ramesh Thakur, Australian National University, ‘From the Non Proliferation Treaty to the Ban Treaty: Nuclear Deterrence vs Nuclear Disarmament’, 2018 Airpower Conference, op.cit.

Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, ‘Keynote Address: Thinking about Geopolitics in East Asia’, 2018 Airpower Conference, op.cit.

JD McCreary, Chief Disruptive Technology Programs, Georgia Tech Research Institute, ‘The Human/Machine Interface: Operational Decision-Making’, 2018 Airpower Conference, op.cit.

Peter Jennings, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ‘Thriving or just surviving? Australia’s tough choices in a risky strategic age’, 2018 Airpower Conference, op.cit.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review