Minister for Defence – Press Conference




DATE:   13 DECEMBER 2012

TOPICS: Air Combat Capability; 2013 White Paper; Afghanistan; North Korea; Tony Abbott; Solomon Islands.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. I’ve got a number of announcements this morning. I’ll start firstly with the Government’s response to the air combat capability transition plan which the Government recently received from Defence.

You might recall that over the last 12 to 18 months I’ve been saying consistently that the Government will not allow a gap to occur in our air combat capability.   

That issue arises of course as a consequence of Australia having an ageing classic Hornet fleet. We have a Classic Hornet fleet of some 70. The Classic Hornet fleet was introduced into Australia between 1985 and 1990. And of course we are awaiting the arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter. When the previous Government announced the decision to purchase the Joint Strike Fighter back in 2006, the expectation was that the first tranche of Joint Strike Fighters would arrive between 2012 and 2014.

That obviously hasn’t occurred. And so I’ve been saying for some time we will not allow a gap to occur in capability caused by the ageing of the Classic Hornet fleet and the late arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter.   

Of course in the meantime the previous Government led by Brendan Nelson back in March of 2007 made the decision to purchase 24 Super Hornets. This was a very sensible decision and one that I’ve previously complemented Brendan Nelson for.       

And so the current composition of our air combat capability is 71 Classic Hornets, 24 Super Hornets, and they take up full operational capability today having arrived variously between 2010 and 2011.       

And our current timetable for Joint Strike Fighters is the first to be received by Australia in the United States for training purposes in 2014, and the first tranche, an additional 12, now expected to arrive in Australia for Australian purposes in 2020.

When the Classic Hornets were introduced back in the 1980s and 1990s, the expectation was that the classics would have a life of fleet until about 2010. We are obviously way past that and the Classics have been the subject of a very successful maintenance program which received a tick from the Australian National Audit Office earlier this year.

But the purchase by effectively Brendan Nelson of those Super Hornets did reflect the difficulties that were foreseen with delays in the Joint Strike Fighter Program, and earlier this year, I placed and the Government placed the timetable for the Joint Strike Fighter Program for Australia on the same timetable as the United States.       

We have in the past made clear that we are contractually obligated to purchase two Joint Strike Fighters and we’ve undertaken to receive an additional 12, what would effectively be our first squadron. Current expectations, that would be arriving in 2020.       

So for the last 12 to 18 months I’ve been making this point, and I asked Defence to prepare an air combat capability transition plan which as I’ve indicated we considered, the Government considered recently.       

That plan has a range of options. And I’ve asked Defence to pursue all options in that plan other than one; one option in that plan was the bring forward of the Joint Strike Fighter Program. That is something which is effectively out of Australia’s control and not realistic, so that option will not be pursued.       

Other options include extension of the service life of the Classic Hornet by way of the ongoing maintenance program; the purchase of additional Super Hornets; and receipt when the Joint Strike Fighter Program comes to fruition.       

As a consequence of receiving that plan the Government has asked Defence to today issue a letter of request to the United States to enable the United States under the foreign military sales arrangements to provide Australia with details of cost, production, and availability of up to an additional 24 Super Hornets.       

This does not commit the Australian Government to purchasing any additional Super Hornets. It puts the Government in a position of being able to, in the course of 2013, to make a considered and advised judgment about our air combat capability into the future.       

I asked Defence to provide us with these options in the course of this year, to ensure that in the course of this year we could make any necessary judgements about future combat capability.       

It’s clear, as a result of the analysis, that we don’t need to make those decisions this year. But we will need to make those decisions in 2013.       

So what are our options, or the various options discussed in the transition plan? The various options include an extension of the use of the Classic Hornets as a result of the success of the maintenance program; and the acquisition of additional Super Hornets.       

When the Super Hornets were purchased there was a view that Super Hornets would provide effectively a transition capability, a transition capability between the Classic Hornets and the Joint Strike Fighter. I think it’s now become clear to all that the Super Hornets are potentially much more than simply a transition fleet.       

This is I think a direct result of the Government’s decision to acquire the electronic warfare capability Growler. My predecessor, Joel Fitzgibbon, back in 2009, ensured that 12 of the 24 Super Hornets would be wired for the potential receipt of the electronic warfare capability Growler.       

And in the course of this year the Government made it clear that it would leave itself open to the prospect of acquiring Growler, and in August of this year I announced that we would proceed on a program of acquiring up to 12 Growler electronic warfare capability, and the Growler capability is of course run via the Super Hornet fleet.       

So we are now not just looking at Super Hornets as transition but looking at the longer-term potential of Super Hornets and Growler and Joint Strike Fighters essentially as a mixed fleet. We are not unique or alone in this. These very same deliberations and considerations are now occurring so far as United States Navy and Air Force is concerned. And in the course of 2013, the Government will make decisions with respect to those various options.       

The extension of the classic Hornet life of platform has been successful, but on any measure the Classics are now becoming an ageing fleet, and we need to proceed very carefully and cautiously so far as the Classic Hornet’s future use is concerned.       

And we now have to also consider the utility into the future of the Super Hornet in combination with Growler.       

We will have, on the current arrangements, 12 of 24 Super Hornets wired up for Growler. The mix that is used more generally would see 12 out of 48 Growler Super Hornet combination.       

So we’re now not just looking at transition, we’re looking at the longer-term potential use of Super Hornets, Growlers, and Joint Strike Fighters. In the papers that have been distributed to you today I also make it clear that the Chief of the Air Force has now according the Super Hornet fleet full operational capability.       

There’s also a capability update dealing with a range of Air Force capabilities. And the public consultation processes for the 2013 White Paper are also announced today, and those details are there for you to see. The public consultation processes for the 2013 White Paper will not be as extensive as they were for the 2009 White Paper. The 2009 White Paper was the first White Paper in nine years. And of course the 2013 White Paper which will be delivered in the first half of 2013 will be delivered some four years after the April 2009 White Paper.       

Consultation has already occurred, as you’d expect, with State and Territory Government representatives, with the think tanks and academics and defence industry and the like.       

But today we are opening up the public consultation processes for the general public.       

The second major announcement I make today is a joint one with the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. I am pleased to announce that today the Government has decided that Australia will offer resettlement to eligible locally employed Afghan citizens who have assisted Australia on its mission in Afghanistan whilst we have been in Afghanistan now for a decade, going on to a decade and a half.       

The announcement that Minister Bowen and I make is in substantially similar terms to the locally engaged employees system which we instituted for locally engaged Iraq employees who assisted Australia in its mission in Iraq.       

The mechanism that will be utilised will be relevant Australian agencies who have Afghan citizens as locally engaged employees will, on application, make a judgment as to the merits of proceeding with such an application by locally engaged Afghan citizen. And once that vetting process has been done by the individual Australian agency it will then formally fall for consideration in the usual way under Australia’s humanitarian program.       

The Iraq comparable arrangement saw some 550 to 600 locally engaged employees and their families come to Australia.       

These judgements under this program will be made on a case-by-case basis so it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict how many will apply and how many will be successfully granted a visa to Australia under our humanitarian program. Any successful applications will come from our humanitarian program which now stands in the order of some 20,000.       

Potential agencies are the Australian Defence Force who have utilised locally employed Afghans either, for example, as interpreters and also potentially the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade locally engaged employees, AusAID locally engaged employees, and the like. So, in substantially similar terms to the Iraq arrangement.       

This is done because Australia regards itself as having a moral obligation to those Afghans who have made a contribution as locally engaged employees, who may be at risk into the future when transition occurs and Australian and International Security Assistance Force drawdown occurs.       

This arrangement is similar to arrangements that have been made by like-minded countries – the United States, Canada, and earlier this week New Zealand have announced similar schemes – and the detailed implementation of those arrangements will obviously be done through the Department of Immigration.       

So, pleased to announce together with the Immigration Minister that program to offer resettlement to Australia of locally engaged Afghan employees.       

I’m happy to respond to your questions. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] you’re looking at a mix of options. In that mix, would you consider another [indistinct]? 

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the two significant aspects of today’s announcement are in the past I have said that if we need to acquire additional aircraft other than the Joint Strike Fighter, then the Super Hornet was an obvious possibility but I’d made no commitment to that. 

What we’ve done today is essentially said, if we do need to acquire an additional aircraft to meet that transition gap, which is potentially there as a result of delays in the Joint Strike Fighter program, it will be Super Hornets. 

To enable us to make a judgement about cost, availability and production, because the Super Hornets are purchased under the United States Foreign Military Sales, we need to formally send a letter of request for that information. That’s not a commitment to purchase. What it does indicate is that you are seriously considering all of the costs of production and other implications. So that is one significance of today’s announcement. 

The second significance is I now put consideration of that not just into the narrow frame of do we need an aircraft or more than 24 Super Hornets to potentially bridge a gap but we are now looking at the longer term use of the Super Hornet and Growler. 

In some respects, the acquisition by the Government of the Growler air warfare electronic capability is the most significant capability that has been picked up by an Australian Government in a considerable period of time. Indeed, the Chief of Air Force said he regarded it as the most important acquisition since the F-111s. 

And what we are now seeing the United States experience is that the success of Growler in the Libya campaign, the very high-edge performance of Super Hornets is now seeing people look more generally at the longer term utility of Super Hornets and Growler in combination with the Joint Strike Fighter.

So this is now not just a narrow gap in a transition from classic Hornets to Joint Strike Fighter. It is the longer term strategic merits of the utility of the Super Hornets together with Growler, in combination with Joint Strike Fighters. 

When the 24 Super Hornets were acquired, the working expectation was that they would be in service until about 2025 because they were seen purely as a transition from Classics to Super – from Classics to Joint Strike Fighters.       

It’s generally acknowledged and known now that the United States Navy, for example, is looking at the potential for Super Hornets and Growler to continue well into the 2030s.       

So the second significance of today’s announcement is we’re not now just viewing Super Hornets as a transition or short-term gap filler, it is do we need or want to have Super Hornets and Growler as a long-term air combat and air warfare capability into the future as part of a mix of fleets. There’s nothing unique or unusual about a mix of fleets, whether it’s Classics and Supers or whether it’s Supers and Joint Strike Fighters.       

The only option, as I indicated that I have ruled and told Defence not to prosecute, is the notion of bringing forward the Joint Strike Fighter.       

All of the experience of the Joint Strike Fighter program has been, to use the jargon, it’s moved to the right; in other words, there have been delays. And that is essentially out of our control. So I’ve said we don’t need to worry about that option. We will obviously closely monitor developments in the Joint Strike Fighter program, and that’s of interest to all concerned, including Canada. Canada has to make its own judgements about its own arrangements so I won’t reflect upon those.       

Every other option is on the table. An extension of the life of the Classics as a result of the success of the maintenance program, and formally today we have started a process of consideration to the potential acquisition of an additional 24 Super Hornets. There’s no commitment to buy but we want all of the detail on the table.       

Part of that longer term consideration is the mix of Growler capability and Super Hornets. Our current mix is one out of two. Generally people would proceed on the basis of one out of four is sufficient for more appropriate combination. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

STEPHEN SMITH: No. The commitment so far as Joint Strike Fighter was concerned in the 2009 White Paper was that the previous Government and the current Government were committed to the Joint Strike Fighter program; that we would look to the purchase of up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters, but the precise number would be subject to advised Government decisions as we went. And the only decision that the Government has made with respect to purchase of Joint Strike Fighters is we’re contractually committed to two. We’ll receive those in the United States for training purposes still on the 2014 timetable. And we’ve indicated publicly that we will also purchase an additional 12, our first tranche. That will essentially give us a squadron.       

The expectation until the middle of this year was that that squadron would effectively be available by 2018 as the Joint Strike Fighter program moved to the right, as the United States moved to the right, effectively two years we did the same thing. And so the current working expectation is a fleet or a squadron of Joint Strike Fighters into Australia by 2020.       

Given that the original timetable for Classics was in the 2010s, there is that short-term gap consideration. But now there’s that longer term consideration which is an appreciation of the edge that Super Hornets give, the edge, electronically that Super Hornets in combination with Growler give, and the mix of a fleet of Supers, Growler and Joint Strike Fighter.       

So it’s not replacement in that sense, but people will make the obvious comment that if we were looking for a country like Australia, 25 million people in our part of the world looking at a fleet of 100. If you then have a combination or a mix of fleets, then one implication is potentially the acquisition of a smaller number of Joint Strike Fighters because a decision has been made, advisably and deliberately to pursue Super Hornets and Growler as a longer term capability.       

Again, I’d just make this point: We are now examining options, no decisions have been made. But we will need to make those decisions in the course of 2013 to make the necessary arrangements to cover what is clearly a short-term gap, but now bearing in mind the longer term strategic and tactical implications of greater, longer term utility of Growler and Super Hornets. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

 STEPHEN SMITH: Well in any – sure.

 JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]

 STEPHEN SMITH: To use the jargon, the Super Hornet is a four or a 4.5 generation aircraft, and the Joint Strike Fighter is a generation five aircraft.

What I think now is much more widely appreciated, and it’s a phrase you’ll hear from US Navy and US Air Force, never go anywhere without a Growler. And by that they mean you have an electronic warfare capability which is deeply significant. And when they say never go anywhere without a Growler, they mean Joint Strike Fighter’s not going anywhere without a Growler.       

So it’s the additional combination of capacity and capability that is now causing serious deliberation on that front. Not just by me and the Government and Defence and Air Force here, but also US Navy and US Air Force.       

On any measure though, whatAustraliahas always sought to achieve is to have an air combat capability edge in our immediate region. With 71 Classics and 24 Super Hornets, we clearly have an air combat capability edge in our immediate region – there’s not doubt about that. And that will continue into the future.       

Whether it’s 24 Super Hornets, 36 Super Hornets, or 48 Super Hornets, for the foreseeable future that would still give us a substantial edge in our part of the world. And the introduction here of Joint Strike Fighters would obviously also have a substantial edge.       

But we have no reservations about a potential combination of Super Hornets and Joint Strike Fighters because on any measure, that gives us a significant edge into the future in our part of the world, just as currently the combination of Classics and Supers gives us that edge. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

STEPHEN SMITH: Like the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, I condemn the latest North Korean test. It is a breach of successive United Nation Security Council resolutions. It’s deeply provocative, and it stands to be condemned in the terms in which not just the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have condemned it, but like minded countries, and also the United Nations itself. It’s clearly in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It’s provocative, and we continue to urge them to desist from these provocative measures. And they’ve particularly provocative for the Republic of Korea and for Japan. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not sure that’s right, firstly. Secondly, we have seen over the past five or six years a number of launches by North Korea. Some have been spectacular failures, and some have been more successful. I previously made the point that the problem for the international community is that over a period of time, we’ve seen an improvement in the launch capability, therefore an improvement in delivery mechanisms. And that together with the combination of North Korea’s nuclear program is what is of serious concern to the international community. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

STEPHEN SMITH: No, of course not. I of course have been aware for some time of Mr Abbott’s intention to travel to Afghanistan. The Prime Minister, myself as Defence Minister, Mr Abbott as Leader of the Opposition, other Senior Ministers and Shadow Ministers visit Afghanistan on a regular basis. I know it’s been described as a surprise visit – they’re always described as surprise visits because of the communications arrangements that we have in place; not letting people know until after the event for the obvious security reasons. This is just one of Mr Abbott’s regular visits, as mine and the Prime Minister’s visits.       

I’ve known for some time of his plan – obviously it’s done in close consultation with my office and with Chief of the Defence Force’s office – it’s one of those coincidences.       

And on the Slipper matter, it’s quite clear that there is a judgement by the Federal Court which raises serious questions for Mr Abbott, Mr Brough, Mr Pyne to answer. The Federal Court has dismissed this matter as essentially a political operation and Mr Brough and Mr Pyne and Mr Abbott have got some serious questions to answer. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, it’s very difficult, if not impossible to make a quantitative judgement or to measure firstly how many people might apply. And secondly, every decision will be done on a case-by-case basis. I made the point earlier that in Iraq in the comparable program for Iraq there were between 550 and 600 Iraq locally engaged employees and their families.       

My instinct is, and I’m sure it’s the same instinct of the Minister for Immigration because we spoke of this is that potentially we’re looking at hundreds, but that can only be done on a case-by-case basis, and there essentially a sifting process.       

The rationale for the scheme is that people potentially putting themselves at risk of retaliation in their own country because they’ve assisted Australia.       

So firstly, the individual agency, whether that’s Defence, whether it’s DFAT, whether it’s AusAID makes a judgment about that. And if we get to the first barrier then it can be formally considered under the humanitarian program by the Minister for Immigration and his Department.       

So I wouldn’t want to quantify it. It needs to be done on a case by case basis. So you’ll have a range of Afghan locally-engaged employees who, because of their service over the years, may be eligible for to apply, how many will apply, time will tell. And then the sifting process by the agency, essentially on a security judgment; and then the humanitarian judgment made in the usual way by the Minister and Department of Immigration. 

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I think I’ve made clear in the past in the course of November, all of the four infantry Kandaks of the fourth Brigade in Uruzgan were accorded capacity to operate independently. We’re doing that. As a consequence of that we have ceased as I’ve previously indicated and announced our operations, our joint operations at a tactical level.       

We have returned from the forward operating bases and the patrol bases to our main multinational base in Tarin Kot.       

And there we’re giving tactical and essentially back of house advice. We continue to train and mentor the other two Kandaks or battalions of the fourth brigade. They’re two Brigades which are engaged essentially in campaign logistics and headquarter logistics.       

And as a consequence of that the individual Kandaks of the fourth Brigade are operating and patrolling, and conducting that range of activities.       

In the meantime of course we continue to utilise our Special Forces in Afghanistan to engage in joint patrols and joint operations with Afghan security forces.       

So our Special Forces operations in Uruzgan and in adjoining provinces have not changed in any way.       

This is what transition is about. We believe we are on track for transition to occur in Uruzgan by the end of next year, or the first quarter of 2014. And we’re pleased with the progress that we’ve made on the security front.       

That’s reflected generally in terms of transition across Uruzgan.       

There is one additional point I would like to make about Afghanistan and that’s this, this may well be the last occasion that I speak to you between now and Christmas. Don’t take that personally. It just might unfold in that way.       

But it is a good opportunity for me, on behalf of the Government, to wish all of the members of the ADF, particularly those who are deployed overseas all the best for Christmas and the New Year; for families who have ADF personnel deployed overseas; it’ll be a difficult time because loved ones will be away; and for 39 families, of course, it’ll be a terrible reminder that one of their loved ones is not with them for this year’s Christmas and new year.       

But all Australians I think regard very highly the work that the ADF does overseas, whether it’s Afghanistan, East Timor, and the Solomons, all of which we’re drawing down from – or whether it’s as part of a United Nations peacekeeping operations.       

So we wish all of those overseas-deployed personnel the best for Christmas and the new year. And our thoughts are with those family members who have lost loved ones, particularly this year, but also in the course of our time in Afghanistan.       

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 


JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’re drawing down in theSolomon Islandsour ADF or military component. I visited the Solomon Islands earlier this year about April and agreed with the Prime Minister that we’d come to that point in the cycle where stabilisation had returned to the Solomon Islands.       

The contribution that we’ve made that New Zealand and Tonga and PNG have made as a Pacific Island Forum sponsored stabilisation force has always been a mix of Defence Force personnel and police, and we’ve got to that point in the cycle where it’s appropriate to turn the Solomon Islands stabilisation mission into a purely law and order or police function, so we’re drawing down with the agreement with the Solomon Islands Government and the New Zealand Government and PNG and Tonga.       

That’ll occur over the course of the next nine to 12 months. And what we see by the second half of next year is essentially a Australian Federal Police or police component in the Solomons.       

That is a good thing because it’s been a very good regional peacekeeping and stabilisation mission.       

And the police presence will continue to assist the Solomon Island constabulary as they grow their capability and their expertise to eventually be able to cater for law and order and police security in the Solomon Islands into the future.       

But the contribution that Australian Defence Force employees have made in the Solomon Islands has been a very good one, and more recently we saw the formal start of the draw-down from East Timor. That will occur by the end of this year or early next year. So we are seeing a draw-down from Afghanistan, a draw-down from our two peacekeeping operations in our part of the world.       

I referred earlier to the consultation processes with the White Paper.       

That draw down is one of the reasons why we’ve bought the White Paper forward for 12 months, which is, as we draw down from three, effectively decade-long overseas operations, we need to think carefully about what strategic and other implications that has for Australia’s presence in our part of the world and beyond, but also what it means for the ADF. I don’t want to make the same mistake that was made post Vietnam which was, in the aftermath of a draw-down from Indo-China, to not think strategically about what into the future for the Australian Defence Force.       

And whilst our transition in Afghanistan has been difficult and will continue to be difficult and dangerous, by any measure it’s a more systematic and methodical draw-down and transition than we saw from Vietnam.       

Thanks very much. And if I don’t see you again, have a good Christmas yourselves. Thank you. 


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