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What's down under, on high, and vital to arms control pacts?

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As the United States and the Soviet Union prepare to begin destroying nuclear weapons to fulfill their latest arms control agreement, a highly secret complex in the Australian outback is taking on more importance to the West. It lies in the desert scrublands outside of Alice Springs, in some of the most unforgiving territory of this hard-bitten continent. But the isolation of the Joint Defense Space Research Facility - more commonly known for its location in Pine Gap - is, to US and Australian military planners, part of its beauty.

For this remote outpost provides a unique vantage point for staring down into the Soviet Union and determine whether the Kremlin is complying with arms control treaties.

``Pine Gap'' is the ``downlink'' for some of the most sensitive and important US spy satellites, providing the West with a wealth of intelligence data on Soviet missiles tests, radar emissions, and military communications. The Soviets are also well aware of the importance of Pine Gap; it is widely assumed that because of it and other joint US-Australian facilities, this country - even though it possesses no nuclear weapons - is a target of Soviet nuclear missiles.

Yet even that prospect has not dissuaded successive Australian leaders of all political stripes from defending the existence of Pine Gap. Even the current Labor Party government, which is embroiled in trade disputes with the US, resists any efforts to use Pine Gap and four other joint military facilities here as bargaining chips.

``They are not bargaining chips. They aren't on the table at all,'' says a senior official of the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Australian Defense Minister Kim Beazley echoes that view, arguing that Pine Gap and the other bases here are part of ``our shared interests in [safeguarding] Western values.''

Indeed, says Professor Desmond Ball, head of the Strategic & Defense Studies Centre at Australian National University, Pine Gap is ``central to the entire Australian-US relationship,'' and crucial to the West in pursuing future arms control agreements.

Mr. Ball, author of a forthcoming book on Pine Gap, says, ``You can't monitor Soviet compliance with present arms control agreements - and even more so, you can't monitor Soviet compliance with any future arms agreements - without Pine Gap.''

But why the Australian outback? Actually, there would appear to be few sites in the world as ideally suited to the task as Pine Gap.

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