Minister for Defence – Interview with Virginia Trioli, ABC News Breakfast



TOPICS: Coles Report; PNG; Drones.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us now from Canberra. Minister, good morning and thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Virginia, good morning.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Problems arising from inexperienced crews, a paucity of experts, poor reliability and a dysfunctional maintenance system. We’ve been talking about the problems of the Collins Class Submarines ever since they were commissioned. Isn’t it time now to draw a line under this whole project?

STEPHEN SMITH: And that’s what we’re endeavouring to do with the Coles Review. I asked Mr Coles, a UK expert, to do this study. I’ve released yesterday his first report and I’m expecting his final report in April of next year. And I’m confident that the Coles Review will enable us to do for Submarine maintenance and sustainment what the Rizzo Report enabled us to do for improving our amphibious fleet heavy lift capability availability.

It’s a very sobering report. It draws attention to long-standing systemic difficulties and it’s been a good thing, I think, to get that report out there, so that people understand the long-term nature of the problem, but also understand that we’re facing up to it, because we have to do better so far as Submarine availability is concerned.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But when you say that, that’s what this allows you to do to draw a line underneath it, what does that mean, because it sounds from what you’re saying that it just will enable you to actually identify how much more money has to be spent on this whole project and, actually, to bring them up to availability.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, one of the issues that has become very clear is that when the Collins Class Submarine was conceived and when it was developed and produced, one of the very serious errors that was made was not paying enough attention to and not taking into account, over the long term – because you’re dealing here with the life of a submarine 20, 30, 40 years. Not enough attention was paid to the long-term systemic challenge of maintenance and sustainment.

Now, that’s certainly a mistake that we will not make so far as the Future Submarine Program is concerned. But this is a problem which has bedevilled Governments over a long period of time, bedevilled Defence and bedevilled Navy. But I am confident that with this external, outside, very sobering view, that we will be able to take steps next year to improve availability of our submarines.

As you point out, we’ve been low on availability and that has to improve. That’s very important for our submarine fleet, very important for our Defence Force.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Look, on the one hand, I guess, it’s entirely responsible to commission such a review to actually see what the true situation is. On the other hand, any defence force anywhere around the world, and any defence minister would have to know, surely, coming into the job that maintenance costs money that it takes focus and attention, and that’s where you need to have a whole lot of your resources put. Do you really need a report in order to learn this, Stephen Smith?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, this is not a problem which has occurred neither in the last 12 months, nor in the last three or four years. It’s been a problem which has been a very great challenge for Defence and for Navy, effectively, since inception.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes, because the submarines were really never any good from the very beginning. I mean they were noisy, they couldn’t go silent. They had to be taken out of commission the moment they turned up.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that’s not our assessment in terms of the capacity of the Collins Class Submarine and, more importantly, that is not what other navies and other defence forces say.

The challenge is to get them in the water on operations on a much more regular basis. If they’re in the water and on operations, they are very, very effective. And that’s just not me saying that, that is the assessment-


STEPHEN SMITH: -of other navies and other defence forces. The challenge here is to get them in the water more regularly, more frequently. And the release yesterday of this first review, I believe, puts us on the path to that.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I know our time is short this morning, so I’ll move along. I’m just wondering what Defence Force contingencies you’re putting in place in relation to the situation in Papua New Guinea.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has lead responsibility for this, and you would have seen over the last couple of days the travel advice to Australians thinking of travelling to Papua New Guinea, or in Papua New Guinea, drawing attention to current events.

The Government and its agencies are monitoring it, but there’s no role for Defence other than to – together with the rest of Government, with DFAT in the lead, to monitor the situation. But we want to see this matter resolved peacefully and resolved in accordance with Papua New Guinea’s constitutional and democratic principles.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But given that there’s a real serious threat here of civil unrest, are you not putting in your own mind at the moment the possibility that the Australian military might be called upon and might be needed, if not to try and restore some peace, some other kind of intervention. Is that a remote possibility or something you’re actively considering?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Defence is not doing anything other than – together with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, monitoring the position.

In the first instance, we are saying publicly and privately to Papua New Guinea, this is a matter which is a matter for Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is a sovereign, independent nation; it needs to resolve these matters.

We want to see these matters resolved in accordance with PNG’s constitution and resolved peacefully. And, so far, the Governor-General has made it clear that he is in the process of doing that. There have been some suggestions of violence, some suggestions of protest, but these have been catered for comfortably by PNG authorities, as they should be.

So, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is, obviously, monitoring the situation closely, as is the Government.

Defence has a role to play in that monitoring, but Defence is not responding in any way other than simply monitoring the situation, which we hope will be resolved in accordance with Papua New Guinea’s constitutional and democratic framework.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Just before I let you go, I do want to ask you a question about a story that’s in The Australian today, which is about Australia’s next generation of drones that have been sent to Afghanistan and, apparently, in a failure of coordination, as it’s been reported this morning, they’ve been sent there before they have a runway to actually operate on, and that runway won’t be available, I think, until the second quarter of next year.

You’re said to have been very angered by that oversight when informed about it in October. Is that so and what’s being done to speed up the availability of a runway so they can operate?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah. Well, I’ve seen that report and I think that report overstates the issue, both in terms of my response and where we are. We’ve got-

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So you’re just grumpy rather than furious?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m always in a good mood, Virginia. You know that, especially on your show.

But what we’re doing is introducing a new capability in terms of unmanned overhead surveillance. We have a very good capability at the moment: ScanEagle and Heron and, also, access to International Security Assistance Force assets.

We’re introducing a new capability, Shadow 200, and as with the introduction of any new capability, you do get teething problems. But we’re very confident this will be introduced in the course of next year, but there’s no gap in capability. We are enhancing it and it’ll be a very good addition to our overhead surveillance.

But I become most concerned and most focused, and sometimes agitated, if there’s a gap in capability, but there’s no gap in capability here. We’re simply introducing a new capability and that’s a good thing.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Just a slight failure of coordination?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think that report is overstated.


STEPHEN SMITH: As you introduce any new capability, you’ll always find the potential for logistic or teething issues. This one’s been a bit overstated. We’ll see in the course of next year the introduction of the Shadow 200 overhead surveillance, and that’ll be a good thing.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Virginia, thanks very much.


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