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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 6 6 May 1970

Mt John Again

page 6

Mt John Again

Canta's 24 April front page news story on the Mount John Satellite Tracking Station at least provoked a reply from Mr Holyoake. Salient's similar front page article (entitled Tracker's Military Use Verified) on 30 July last year did not bring any response from the Government. The assertion of both news stories was the same: that the Tracking Station has a military function. This allegation has not yet been denied—as it was so strenuously in the case of the proposed Omega installation. In the following article, Les Atkins outlines how documents issued by the United States Information Service have made it perfectly clear that the Mount John Tracking Station is a military installation. The article purports to do no more than that. The desirability or otherwise of a close involvement in the American defence' system is something that the reader can well we believe, form his own opinions about.

The Mount John Satellite Tracking Station became operational on 19 October last year. The principal piece of equipment in the Station is a Baker-Nunn camera—that is, a Super Schmidt astronomical tracking telescope with a time recording system connected to a highly accurate time standard. The camera is capable of detecting a six metre sphere at the distance of the moon.

Canta's Claims

According to the USIS and the New Zealand Government, the camera's function is simply to track, for scientific purposes, the movement of orbital objects in space. Owen Wilkes, writing in Canta about Mount John, based his allegation that the Station has a military function upon a United States Air Force unclassified document entitled Aerospace Defence: Background Information. Salient's source of information was a USAF systems brochure which stated that the "Military Baker-Nunn stations" were an integral part of the USAF Spacetrack system which is, in turn, part of the Aerospace Defence Command. Canta's Background Information described the Baker-Nunn in the following terms:

"The Military Baker-Nunn is a tracking astronomical telescope camera. It is the most sensitive and precise satellite tracking instrument in the Space Defence System." The Space Detection and Tracking System (Spadats) of which Mount John is a unit is part of the Combat Operations Centre (COC). Background Information has this to say about COC: "The nerve centre of the air defense system is the COC . . . This centre is linked by communications systems to all subordinate commands and key governmental agencies. An attack warning would be flashed simultaneously to Aerospace defence units, the Strategic Air Command, civil defense agencies of the US and Canada, the Pentagon and the Canadian National Defence H.Q."

The USAF booklet then goes on to describe the location of COC 1400 feet under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. A description is also given of the way in which the computer-processed data [from Sensors such as that at Mount John] is deployed on giant display consoles before operators who control deployment of all America's nuclear weaponry. Amongst the weapon systems at their disposal is the Aerospace Defence Command's Anti-satellite Defence System—"a land based missile system which is capable of interception and destruction of armed satellites."

Owen Wilkes in the Canta article says Mount John "will help plot the course of any possible enemy-orbiting nuclear weapon so that anti-satellite missiles can shoot it down. Similar action would be taken against enemy surveillance, communication, navigation and weather satellites, all of which are militarily useful." Mr Holyoake's reply to Canta's allegations, (Evening Post 28 April), was an interesting one. At no point did the Prime Minister deny that the Mount John Station is a military installation. Mr Holyoake said that Canta seemed well versed in running scare stories: "Two years ago we had Canta starting scare stories about Omega . . . Now they seem to be starting on the Baker-Nunn Satellite Tracking Station."

Prime Minister's Statement

"There is plenty of public information about the Baker Nunn Station at Mount John," continued Mr Holyoake, "and it has been seen by many members of the public." This statement almost gives an accurate picture of the situation—"almost" because Mr Holyoake failed to state that the information which was made available was only made so after the agreement allowing the USAF to construct the Station was completed in virtual secrecy and, indeed, after the Station had been in fact constructed. Mr Holyoake then added "The only specific charge Canta makes seems to be that the Station is designed to enable the United States to shoot down orbiting nuclear weapons. To place such weapons in orbit would be a violation of the Space Treaty and there is no suggestion that any are in orbit."

Image of Canta magazine

Mr. Holyoake's remarks do not, of course, constitute in any way a denial of Mr Wilkes' assertions in Canta or the assertions made in Salient last year. They are, in fact, at variance with the information provided by Aerospace Defence: Background Information, the USAF document quoted earlier, which states quite clearly that the Baker-Nunn camera stations form part of the Aerospace Command. As has already been pointed out in this article, the Aerospace Command has control of an Anti-satellite Defence System "which is capable of interception and destruction of armed satellites." Mr Holyoake's reply on this point would therefore seem to have avoided the point

Usaf Systems Brochure

The pamphlet which provided the basis for Salient's 1969 article—a USAF Systems Brochure—contains additional material which supports Wilkes' argument. The fifth siting criterion listed in "Section B—Camera Sites" on page 19 reads: "It must be possible to make long-term arrangements for the site with a high probability that the agreements will remain in force. Most desirable from this aspect would be a site on US controlled territory or, if this is not possible, on territory controlled by a friendly country which is politically stable." Into which category New Zealand falls is not clear.

The next point of interest concerns the official reasons for the pursuance of the satellite tracking programme. Captain Boucher, senior officer at Mount John, gave the following reasons to Canta:
"(a)Maintenance of a general catalogue of all objects in orbit, together with details of orbital speeds, distances, decay rates etc. This enables the presence of new satellites to be established, and ensures that manned space missions will be planned so that a collision with orbiting objects is impossible.
(b)Support of various science programmes, especially geodesy—the accurate measurement of the size, shape and gravitational field of the earth. (Note: this sort of information, besides having scientific value, is essential to the accurate calculation of guided missile trajectories.)
(c)Quality control—checking the accuracy of other instrumentation in space research programmes."

Close up of Canta magazine

The Station's mission, according to the systems brochure, however is defined as follows:
"(a)To provide observations on objects which, for reasons of insufficient radar cross-section, or too great a range, cannot be observed by the radar sensors.
b)To provide observations for the determination of highly accurate orbits on selected satellites for system calibration, evaluation, and quality control.
c)To provide highly accurate observations on selected satellites for special projects and for the scientific community." [Emphasis mine]

Part (c) would imply, then, that there are special projects which are not of a scientific nature.

In the USAF brochure it is further stated that an important part of the processing of information received from the Baker-Nunn Stations is precision reduction of the film received. Originally only one laboratory could handle such precise data—the photo reduction laboratory of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. (SAO). SAO is exclusively a scientific organisation which itself operates a world-wide network of twelve Baker-Nunn cameras.

According to the USAF brochure, the USAF established its own laboratory, ruling out the use of that operated by SAO on three grounds: "This source [SAO] is not capable of satisfying our urgent requirement for the following reasons:
1.The data would not be available in Colorado Springs within 24 hours after the observation was made. Typically delays would run into months.
2.SAO can handle only unclassified data.
3.The Sole Mission of that Facility is to Support Pure Science; Hence, it is not and Cannot be Responsive to Air Force Operational Needs."

Possible Military Uses

Reasons two and three (above) speak for themselves. The first, however, carries further implications. According to Canta there is a tracking method, of greater accuracy than the normal one, which is used for some observations. This mode of tracking apparently provides nearly instantaneous transfer of data from film to the Colorado computer. Moreover, strict security measures are taken to prevent onlookers from viewing some of the Station equipment. Various conflicting reasons have been offered for this by the USAF—for example "there's a lot of delicate equipment which will break if kicked". Such speed and secrecy as regards information supplied by the Baker-Nunn camera would indicate three possible military uses:
1.The detection of Soviet spy and other satellites and orbit calibration of US spy-satellites.
2.The detection of Soviet space weapons and orbit calibration of similar US weapons.
3.The provision of the highly accurate information necessary to destroy such satellites and weapons.

Information gathered by the Mount John Station will, it is said, be made available to Canterbury University on whose land the Station has been built. It can be pointed out, however, that similar provisions were built into the agreement which lead to the establishment of the Woodbourne base—from which no information has been forthcoming.

This Base Will Self Destruct in Ten Seconds . . .

A final note on Mount John worthy of some consideration. It has already been indicated that COC Headquarters, a likely target of espionage or first phase attack, are buried beneath a mountain and are capable of continuing operations for thirty days after being sealed off from the outside world. Mount John, it would seem, is also capable of existing independent of New Zealand support. A diesel generator and special water supply ensure this. In addition, rumour originating from those who assisted with Mount John construction, has it that the floor of the communications room had built into it demolition or immolation devices so that, according to Canta, it could be destroyed if its security were about to be compromised. Owen Wilkes noted a manual entitled Emergency Destruction Plan on a desk in the operations room.