How we spy on our friends
The Sunday Age
Sunday 8 April 2001
The Cold War drama played out between a Chinese jet fighter and a US spy plane off Hainan island has focused attention on a global intelligence jigsaw in which Australia plays a clandestine but pivotal part.
Australia's main role involves massive satellite surveillance of its Asian neighbors' civil and military communications that extends over a third of the planet. But it includes regular flights around Indonesia and as far afield as India and Pakistan by RAAF P-3 Orion patrol planes carrying equipment similar to that aboard the US plane at the centre of the row.
Many Americans were startled to discover their aircraft were carrying out potentially dangerous spying missions off the Chinese coast. But Australians would be equally surprised at the extent of their country's surveillance.
Since 1947, Australia has been part of a highly sensitive intelligence-gathering alliance with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand approved by the Chifley government. It was top secret for 40 years until revealed by strategic analysts Des Ball and Jeffrey T. Richelson in their book The Ties That Bind.
The agreement divides the planet into spheres of intelligence- gathering responsibility, with Australia's Defence Signals Directorate covering the eastern Indian Ocean, parts of South- East Asia and the western Pacific. But technology has given it a much wider range.
Last year Indonesia claimed RAAF aircraft were carrying out "black" (secret) flights over its territory. Australia denied the claims, but Indonesia repeated them in an official protest and threatened to shoot down the aircraft.
The magazine Flight International said intelligence-gathering flights were carried out by two RAAF EP-3 Orion maritime- surveillance planes which were converted to operate as intelligence platforms under a classified project called Peacemate.
These aircraft were joined during the Timor crisis by an even more sophisticated US EP-3E Aeries II.
Indonesia issued a NOTAM (notice to airmen), warning pilots to watch out for RAAF Orions.
In another incident, Indonesia claimed that two of its fighters intercepted a RAAF Boeing 707 air tanker and four Australian F/A-18 fighters in its airspace.
An Indonesian fighter was alleged to have come to within eight metres of a Hornet. Flight International believed the Indonesian jets were armed and the Australian aircraft were not.
The Australian aircraft were enroute to Singapore and the Australian Defence Force said they were in international air space in a recognised air corridor.
Australia is also believed to use the reconnaissance version of the F-111 bomber, the RF-111C, to overfly Indonesia. The plane carries a long-range imaging pod able to record a mass of signals and sounds over a great distance.
The RAAF's aircraft regularly find themselves much further afield and are believed to have collected information about Indian and Pakistani missile and nuclear bomb tests.
In 1997, India formally protested to Australia that an RAAF Orion flew low over the pride of its fleet, the new destroyer INS Delhi, south of India's Andaman Islands.
The Orion photographed the ship and dropped sonar buoys near it. These would have collected enough information about noises emitted by the destroyer to paint a comprehensive picture of its power plant and propulsion system. This "signature" would be stored to enable Australia and its allies to later identify the ship by its noise alone.
The US aircraft involved in last week's incident is believed to have been trying to find or listen to either a new Chinese destroyer or one of two new Chinese submarines the Americans are worried about.
One is a variant of the Russian Kilo Class sub and the other a variant of the Victor III, designed to launch cruise missiles while submerged. That would make it ideal for attacking US aircraft carriers.
Professor Ball told The Sunday Age the RAAF Orions constantly patrolled a massive area of the Pacific between Australia and Butterworth in Malaysia. They would also head out across the South China Sea, around New Guinea and back over the Coral Sea.
Along the way they would intercept VHF and microwave signals from as far as 200 kilometres away.
"Our coverage is both what we're interested in, Indonesia basically, and broader coverage on behalf of the UK/USA community, which means from Burma across to the Coral Sea," Professor Ball said.
US liaison officers were stationed in the intercept facilities and processing facilities and at headquarters in Australia and the US.
"It's key stuff. You can't do anything unless you know what the electronic environment you're going to be operating in is.
"It's what tells you where things are located in terms of radar sites, communications antennae and communications beacons. It also tells you, by intercepting their communications, what they're planning to do. By monitoring radars on their aircraft you can tell when the aircraft move from strip to strip, so you can monitor their order of battle.
"You can target your own systems by keying them in to particular frequencies. If you want to hit an airport and you know the air- traffic control radar at that airport is on a certain frequency, then you can target your own things from 1000 kilometres away straight into that radar."
Extraordinarily sophisticated equipment aboard satellites, aircraft and warships and operating in land-based stations in Australia act as a series of massive electronic vacuum cleaners, sweeping up every kind of communication.
A mass of information from all sources flows to the Defence Signals Directorate headquarters, at Russell Hill, in Canberra. There, powerful computers sift the mundane - the conversations of the region's lovelorn teenagers, instructions to bring home some milk - from the potentially important.
The information might include details of military movements, plans to destabilise a government, hints at a terrorist operation, a people-smuggling racket or a drug transfer. It is passed on to specialist agencies for comprehensive analysis.
"It operates," says an expert, "not unlike a news agency distributing information to clients."
This vast net is bound to scoop up economic data and it is hard to imagine the system ignoring commercial information that might be used in trade negotiations.
Most of the information Australia collects comes from stations - at Kojarena, near Geraldton in WA, Shoal Bay in the Northern Territory and Waihopai in New Zealand - which intercept satellite signals.
There, the Defence Signals Directorate intercepts phone and other calls over a massive area extending from East Africa and Eastern Europe across all of Asia to the mid-Pacific and from the Antarctic up to Siberia.
Key targets are the Palapa satellites which provide the national telecommunications systems of Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Papua New Guinea.
More direct strategic surveillance will be provided by the Jindalee Operational Radar Network at Alice Springs from next year.
The over-horizon radar system will monitor aircraft and ship movements right over Indonesia and possibly further north into Asia.
A key role of Australia's six Collins Class submarines is to gather intelligence using their own electronic equipment and by observing bases and shipping movements from periscope depth. Two submarines operated off Timor before and during the landings there. In a crisis, they would also be relied on heavily by Australia's allies, as the relatively small and manoeuvrable conventional submarines can operate much more effectively in the region's shallow inshore waters than the massive nuclear vessels of the US Navy.
Another analyst said electronic surveillance by ground stations was the most discreet way to gather information.
"If they see an aircraft cruising along their border with aerials sticking out, there is not a lot they can do legally if it is international territory. But it is an affront to them.
"With the ground stations they never see anything. The satellite is far above and the ground station is in your own country. You hoover up masses of information and they never know it."