Minister for Defence – Transcript – Interview with Justin Smith, 2UE Drive

Re: Iraq, NATO, Afghanistan, future submarine (8 September 2014)

SMITH:

I did mention late last week that we were hoping to speak with the Defence Minister, he’s been in Brussels (sic) at NATO headquarters, we’ve just made contact with him, it’s good to have him on the line, Senator David Johnston, Minister for Defence, Minister thanks for your time.

JOHNSTON:

Thank you for having me Justin.

SMITH:

How is the trip going?

JOHNSTON:

Well I am back in Australia now, I got back in at about 2am Sunday morning, and we were in Cardiff, Wales, for a full NATO meeting. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron were present and we discussed a number of issues. Afghanistan, obviously ISIL in Iraq, and the Ukriane.

SMITH:

When we look at the Islamic State as a potential enemy, I mean I know they are deemed to be a terrorist organisation but I am talking about conflict here. Where would you put them, up against say, the conflict in Afghanistan and the conflicts that we have had in Iraq in recent times. Where does it fall into, what category.

JOHNSTON:

Justin that’s a very good question, I think they are right at the top of the list at the moment, I mean I have not remembered seeing the obsessive beheadings and the atrocities published on the Internet to the same degree that this organisation seems to delight in terrorising not just the people of Iraq and Syria but the whole region. So I think they are pretty out there, and I know that even al Qaeda have rejected them. Which I think says a lot.

SMITH:

But as far as numbers go, we know for want of a better term to use an Australia colloquialism, they’re bad buggers, but how many of them are there, how big will the conflict be compared to Afghanistan and Iraq?

JOHNSTON:

Well it’s very hard to estimate, I have seem numbers that suggest its between 10,000 and 20,000, now that doesn’t make them the largest group fighting particularly in Syria but they seem to be very organised and have specific military skills. To have captured so much country that they have in such a short period of time and to very cleverly taking possession of captured weapons and using them skilfully – they are very dangerous.

SMITH:

You make a good point there when you talk about the way they have organised themselves, we are not talking some people sort of just running around in black clothes just with a couple of AK-47s, they understand what they are doing, they know how to do it, they have had some degree of training.

JOHNSTON:

And that’s what is destabilising everybody, the way they have taken these towns so quickly and capturing a large amount of prisoners, and then proceeding to execute them, they are extremely dangerous and I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of this for some time.

SMITH:

Not to make this political but the Leader of the Greens Christine Milne has suggested that we haven’t explored all of our diplomatic options yet. What do you say about any negotiation with the Islamic State?

JOHNSTON:

Well I just think that is one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard. How on earth would anybody want to negotiate with people, I mean you’d need an army around you to protect you, and what would you use? Morse code or flags or something? You wouldn’t want to be near these people, they would capture you. They’ve already taken 40 Turkish hostages, they’ve captured a whole lot of other people, and they don’t seem to have any real demands. I hope the Turks are alright, because these people really seem to delight in publishing atrocities.

SMITH:

I just want to explore this for a second I mean I know how silly it is, but I mean is there any form of diplomacy, not just face to face, has it been explored or have we just been down that track and it’s time for only one form of action?

JOHNSTON:

Well I think there’s always communications across all States in the gulf, we are all talking with our ambassadors and our Defence attaches as to what is going on, who are these people, they are led by a gentleman called al Baghdadi and I don’t think there is any possibility quite frankly of talking or reasoning with these people. They have a discrete objective, that is they want to establish a caliphate, and they are prepared to terrorise the region in order to achieve that.

SMITH:

Well that’s my next question, what do they want?

JOHNSTON:

They want to set up a separate State across the Levant as we call it which is part of Turkey, part of Lebanon, part of Jordan, Syria and Iraq, now they want to impose Sharia law, the usual sort of extremism.

SMITH:

But it’s not usual is it, because as you have mentioned before we haven’t seen the likes of them for a while, they are better organised, we dropped the ball in here haven’t we, (inaudible) in 2003?

JOHNSTON:

I am very surprised that they have been able to move so quickly as they have to secure so many towns, in such a short space of time.

SMITH:

What was our intelligence, say 12 months ago, on this crowd?

JOHNSTON:

Well we thought they were going to stay inside Syria and everyone was watching Syria thinking that that was the local nature of the fight, these people have broken out of Syria and swept right across north western Iraq and they have really surprised everybody, particularly the government in Bagdad.

SMITH:

Minister I understand the sensitivities of how you need to come some information confidential, but is there, there has been talk about the SAS being involved, can you confirm that?

JOHNSTON:

No I certainly can’t confirm that, what we are focussed on at the moment is a humanitarian output, we have been dropping supplies on Sinjar mountains, and a little town called Amirli, and of course we’ve landed to support the Peshmerga in Erbil in north eastern Iraq where we’ve sought to assist them who appear to be the only capable force of putting up a resistance and you know I really would hate that an adversarial of ISIL to be defeated for want of ammunition.

SMITH:

But that won’t end there though will it?

JOHNSTON:

Well our objective at the moment is to make sure that the enemies of ISIL, the potential victims of ISIL are all protected and the best means of protecting are of course giving the Peshmerga the opportunity to resist them.

SMITH:

And there would be criticism from people and the Greens would be one of them, we are sitting here waiting for our orders from the United States, from Barack Obama, is that correct?

JOHNSTON:

Look I don’t think that is correct because when I was in NATO can I say that all countries at NATO expressed a clear understanding that this is an outrage, that these are atrocities that are being committed and that everybody has to be aware of the necessity to, in some form or another, provide assistance in dealing with them.

There is also the situation where most of the countries in NATO and also the partners to NATO of which Australia is one, have got foreign fighters fighting with ISIL, or terrorist groups in Syria and at some point they are going to come home and that’s a very serious problem for these communities, including Australia, to deal with.

SMITH:

Minister, welcome home, and I want to ask you about our troops in Afghanistan. How are they?

JOHNSTON:

Well we’ve got just under 400 in there, I am actually very encouraged, I think things are going reasonably well, we’re integrated across command and control, we are mentoring and assisting in the training of the Afghan National Army particularly is what I am focused on. The Afghan National Army – you have got to take your hat off to them – this year they have sustained around 4,000 casualties – and yet their recruitment numbers are up.

SMITH:

4,000?

JOHNSTON:

Yes, 4,000, their recruitment numbers are up, so you know they are taking the fight to the bad guys and I am very pleased with what we have been able to achieve in the training and mentoring of the Afghan security forces and I actually think they are doing a very very difficult job.

SMITH:

It’s a big job, it’s one hell of a job and I am sorry Minister but before you go, the submarines to be built in Japan, to replace the Collins Class sub, you are copping a bit of flak today has the decision been made yet?

JOHNSTON:

No, no decision made yet. As I keep telling people when I opened the box marked ‘Future Submarine’ there was nothing in it except a small cobweb in one corner.

SMITH:

Do we need them?

JOHNSTON:

Well we do need them. As a strategic deterrent from an island nation’s point of view I mean we have got to have submarines. They will command sea denial across our northern frontier, it’s a frontline capability that we simply must have, but can I tell that in the past five years very little has been done to take us down the path of actually getting to plan or design for submarines.

SMITH:

Will they be, I mean they seem to be a little bit, the criticism is that they are a bit slower and have less range than the Collins, I mean is that going to be good enough?

JOHNSTON:

Look Australia has a 3,400 submerged tonne submarine which gives us enough room for lots of battery space and lots of fuel. The Japanese submarine is about 4,200 submerged tonnes, which is bigger than the Collins, it’s the biggest diesel electric submarine. But the Germans also produce some very good vessels and the French have got on offer a Barracuda which is almost 5,000 tonnes, so we are canvassing widely across a number of countries, trying to play catch up, because absolutely nothing has been done in respect to the development of this program.

SMITH:

Minister thank you for your time.

JOHNSTON:

Justin lovely to talk to you.

ENDS.


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