By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY – The Australian outback may be thousands of miles away from the Gulf War, but military bases there are playing a vital role in the allies’ high-tech battle against Iraq, defence experts say.
Australian-U.S. bases in the remote interior use spy satellites high above the Gulf to detect Iraq’s Scud missile launches and are able within a minute to warn the allies of the attacks.
TD “The satellites help pinpoint where a Scud launch came from, and would be used to identify the site (in Iraq) for allied fighters and bombers to strike,” said military analyst William Maley at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
The bases monitor a constant stream of data from the estimated 15 satellites either positioned above the Gulf or making orbital passes over the area.
The most important base is Nurrungar, 500 km (310 miles) northwest of Adelaide and operated jointly by Australia and the U.S. Air Force, said Professor Desmond Ball, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.
Nurrungar collects images from U.S. DSP (Defence Support Programme) satellites, which use an infra- red telescope to detect the exhaust plumes of Scuds during ascent, and within a minute relay the information to U.S. commanders in Saudi Arabia.
In the Iraqi missile attack on Tel Aviv on Tuesday, which killed three Israelis and wounded about 100, defence analysts say the five-minute flight from western Iraq would have left the allies with about four minutes warning.
The DSP satellites can narrow the launch source to within five km (three miles), and are believed to have detected 266 launches during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.
They also carry television cameras to follow the missile trajectory to confirm the satellite’s infra-red alarm, and can be used to monitor large military movements.
Two DSP satellites are believed to be positioned over the Gulf, the experts say.
Pine Gap, a base 20 km (12 miles) outside of Alice Springs and run by Australia and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, eavesdrops on military and civilian communications in Iraq via satellites.
The allies are believed to be using three satellites for this task.
Other satellites in lower orbits and closer to the action are believed to be monitoring the success of allied bombings and keeping tabs on Iraqi troop movements.
“If counted together (the bases’) contribution to the war would be more substantial than Australia’s commitment of three naval vessels,” said Ball, considered an authority on the bases.
Australia has a guided missile frigate, a destroyer and a supply ship in the Gulf and medical teams aboard hospital ships.
Officially, the Australian government says base operations are secret and releases little information about their activity.
Defence ministry spokesman Captain David Tyler says Nurrungar “provides early warning of ballistic missile attack and data relating to missile launches and surveillance”.
Pine Gap “collects intelligence data supporting the national security of Australia and the United States,” he said.
Both bases were built in the late 1960s and are believed to have cost billions of dollars. Another base, North West Cape in a remote part of Western Australia, relays communications for U.S. and Australian submarines and ships.
Asked last week whether the role the bases played was important to Gulf operations, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke said: “They’re not irrelevant.”