TOPICS: Afghanistan; Bushmasters; Defence Budget.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Minister thank you for your time and your update.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: You said that for the first time you've returned from a visit to Afghanistan with some cautious optimism. What does that say about your feelings about progress or lack of progress in Afghanistan on every other visit you've been on?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've said on a number of occasions after visits to Afghanistan that I thought we were making progress, but this was the first occasion where I did really feel as I described it some cautious optimism that we had made considerable ground, both in Uruzgan but also in Afghanistan generally, in terms of helping to devalue the insurgency and their capability. But I balance that with the sure and certain notion that as the summer fighting season as it is called starts, that the Taliban will strike back, both to recover ground but also with high profile attacks, suicide bomber attacks potentially aimed at much as television screens of the domestic audience of the country's who contribute to us as having a military or combat affect.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: So are you worried that this fighting season is going to be bloodier than those in the past and in particular be worried about retaliation attacks after Osama bin Laden's death?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the last fighting season, the year we've just seen, we know was the most violent year in Afghanistan. Now that was a direct result of the surge, both the 40,000 US and ISAF additional troops but also effectively a surge in Afghan troops, which is also a significant number.
But it's also standing up the Taliban, taking ground, devaluing their effort. We need not just to consolidate over the winter months which we have but to withstand the Taliban's push-back and as a consequence we are steeling ourselves with a potential for more casualties and more fatalities.
I have more generally warned that we do need to be wary of reprisals, from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups as a result of bin Laden's death recently.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: You have announced that you're sending more Bushmasters to help our troops, where are they going? Is it mainly into the Uruzgan Province?
STEPHEN SMITH: We’ve got a fleet of about 700 Bushmasters. There's always attrition and there's of course been attrition in Afghanistan as a result of IEDs and the like. So, this morning as part of my ministerial statement I announced that Jason Clare the Minister for Defence Materiel and I have authorised the purchase of another 101 Bushmasters, it's essentially 30 for attrition purposes and 70 more to make sure that we cover for attrition in future years.
The Bushmaster has been a very, very important piece of Force protection for us. It has unquestionably saved lives in Afghanistan, it's essentially an armoured troop carrier and whilst it's been the subject of some very, very bad IED in incidences, we haven't lost any anyone and we want that to continue, so it's a very important decision in our view.
They'll be prepared to what's called Middle East Area of Operation standard so comparable to what we have in Afghanistan. It's essentially to make sure we're covered for Afghanistan in that protection of our troop’s sense.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: In this budget you did cut a thousand civilian jobs from the Defence Department. That will surely equate to less support in a flow-on effect to our troops on the front line?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no this is a very good budget for Defence. It's been a very good effort by-
ASHLEIGH GILLON: A thousand people cut though, it's a huge number.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no it's a very good budget for Defence because the savings have affectively been provided in operating areas by us having more success in our Strategic Reform Program than we anticipated. And the thousand civilians that we won't need, will come as a result of greater success in our Strategic Reform Program and also utilising more shared services.
We have ring-fenced or protected our military operations, we've ring-fenced or protected our force protection mechanism so in our Strategic Reform Program which is a $20 billion reinvestment program over a 10-year period, we've had more success in our earlier years than we otherwise expected and has enabled us to essentially reduce the expenditure and to make a very significant return to the budget black line for general Commonwealth or government purposes.
The area of course has been the usual slippages that we see in the procurement and capability areas with a range of projects but nothing we would regard as being fatal to any particular project.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Minister Smith thank you for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.