TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP INTERVIEW,SYDNEY
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 28 March 2012
TOPICS: US Global Force Posture Review; Afghanistan
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much for turning up. I just wanted to make some remarks about the United States Global Force Posture Review and Australia's Force Posture Review.
You may recall that when we held AUSMIN, which is the meeting between Australian Foreign and Defence Ministers and the United States Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Defense when we met in Melbourne in November 2010, we agreed that we would work closely with the United States on its Global Force Posture Review.
And in September last year, in San Francisco, we noted the progress that we had made and when the President visited Australia in November last year, the Prime Minister and the President announced a range of initiatives.
Firstly, that a United States Marine task force group would rotate out of Australian Army facilities in the Northern Territory, starting with 250 and growing over a period of time over five or six years to 2,500. The first of those 250 arrive early next month.
Secondly, we agreed that we would see a greater utilisation by United States Air Force of Australian Air Force bases in the Northern Territory, in northern Australia, particularly RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal.
And thirdly, we agreed that as our third priority, we would look in the future to greater access by United States Navy of our Indian Ocean port, HMAS Stirling, in my own state of Western Australia. And they are the three priorities that we have been focusing on.
Since the President's visit, we have focused on bedding down the arrangements, so far as the first group of Marines is concerned. And indeed, last week, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was in Canberra- I met with him, and our conversations focused on the success of the President's visit, the success of our announcement and bedding down those arrangements and, into the future, moving towards greater access so far as United States Navy and HMAS Stirling is concerned.
Just a couple of points. Firstly, we don't have United States bases inAustralia. We either have joint facilities, such as Pine Gap, or we have access by United States Army, Navy and Air Force to our facilities.
You have seen overnight the reporting and the suggestion of utilisation of Cocos Island. At the time of the President's visit, I made clear that Cocos Island was a long term prospect. Cocos Island has not been the subject of detailed discussion by me, with my counterparts, whether that's Secretary Gates in the past or Secretary Panetta. And so suggestions that we have had detailed discussions at my level about the utilisation of Cocos Island are not correct.
We view Cocos as being potentially a long term strategic location, but that is down the track. So I have made the point earlier today that people should not get ahead of themselves on this matter, whether they are commentators, whether they are officials. The focus of the Australian Government and the focus of the Obama administration are in those three areas that I have referred to - the Marine task force group in the Northern Territory, greater access to our Air Force bases in the Northern Territory and subsequently a greater utilisation of HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port.
Can I just make some remarks on another matter and then I am happy to respond to your questions. We saw in the last couple of days the terrible injury to an Australian AusAID worker - David Savage. Can I again express my condolences to his family and his friends for the injuries that he has suffered. He has been transferred to Germany for medical treatment. Overnight, his condition, I am told, I am advised, has improved from serious but stable to satisfactory, so we hope that his condition continues to improve.
But he, together with other civilian corps members, together with other AusAID workers, are doing very good work in Afghanistan. As it is for our soldiers, it is in difficult and dangerous circumstances. And on this occasion, he was provided with force protection measures by the International Security Assistance Force. In the normal course of events, those arrangements will be reviewed, as they are after any such terrible incident.
It is also a suggestion that a child suicide bomber has been used by the Taliban in this matter. The use of children in such a way is contemptible, and I again express my revulsion and horror at such use of children.
I am happy to respond to your questions.
JOURNALIST: Have you ever discussed the possibility of the use of Cocos for strategic purposes by the US with the regional neighbours? And if not, why not?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the reference to Cocos Island has emerged as a part of a commentary that I have made in the context of the United States Global Force Posture Review and also the President's visit. And I made the point at the time in November-December of last year that it was very much a long term possibility.
I haven't had with my counterparts or, for example, recently with Kurt Campbell, when he was here in Australia. I haven't had a detailed discussion about the nature of access, either naval or aerial, or the detail of any proposals or suggestions. It is very much down the track. It is not one of our three current orders of priority.
As well, you might recall that earlier this year, I released the progress report from our own Force Posture Review. That Force Posture Review conducted and produced by Allan Hawke and Rick Smith, two former Secretaries of the Department of Defence, refers to Cocos Island and refers to the need at some stage of upgrading the airfield facilities at Cocos Island. And again, that is very much a medium to long term prospect. It is not one of our priorities at this stage.
So in terms of our regional neighbours, having consideration of Cocos, I have put that out there as part of my commentary. It is also contained in our own interim or progress Force Posture Review Report that I received from Rick Smith and Allan Hawke earlier this year. And I am expecting to receive the final report from them in the next week or so.
JOURNALIST: You said that Cocos Island would have to be upgraded. Who would do that? Would it be Australia or would you ask the United States to help?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is one of the issues that will fall for consideration. That has been referred to in passing. I can recall a conversation I have had with my then counterpart, Secretary of State Robert Gates, where I made the point to him that whilst we should view Cocos as a potential strategic asset into the future, there was significant upgrade work that would be required.
But we haven't gone into the detail of that costing conversation, just as we haven't gone into the detail of what possible types of operation or types of aircraft or types of ships might be appropriate for joint access out of Cocos in the long term.
JOURNALIST: Would you expect a backlash from neighbours if joint access were to go ahead?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no, because we have been very transparent about the way in which we have dealt with this matter. And that is why I say officials and commentators should not get ahead of themselves. When AUSMIN was conducted in Melbourne in November, 2010, then Secretary of State for Defense Robert Gates and I made public comments about the work we were doing on the United States Global Force Posture Review. The same occurred after San Francisco.
And, of course, when the President was here in November last year, he and the Prime Minister announced the arrangements that we had made so far as the Marine task force group rotating out of the Northern Territory was concerned, just as we announced the greater access for US Air Force planes to RAAF bases in the Northern Territory and we announced the work into the future, so far as naval access to HMAS Stirling on our western seaboard is concerned.
So we have been transparent. At the time, you may recall, that briefings were given to our regional counterparts either in advance of or contemporaneously with the President's and the Prime Minister's announcements. So we have been transparent about these matters.
As a general proposition, of course, the work we're doing with the United States on its Global Force Posture Review is consistent with our longstanding approach, that we regard the presence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, we regard an enhanced by the United States in the Asia-Pacific region as a force for peace, as a force for stability and a force for prosperity.
So we welcome very much the initiative that the Prime Minister and the President announced in November and we also look forward to continuing the work that we are doing with theUnited States on this front but we will continue to be transparent about these matters, at the appropriate time.
As I say, people should not get ahead of themselves.
JOURNALIST: Transparent, but have you had direct conversations with your neighbouring counterparts?
STEPHEN SMITH: Not about Cocos because we've made it clear publicly that that is not one of our three priorities, that is down the track, but I've made comments about Cocos. It's also, as I say, referred to in the Force Posture Review progress report presented to me by former Defence Secretaries Allan Hawke and Rick Smith.
JOURNALIST: Down the track, can I get an idea of how long that track is?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. Our priority is bedding down the Marine task force rotational arrangement. That'll take place over a period of five or six years. Secondly, further work on greater access so far as United States Air Force is concerned to our RAAF bases in the Northern Territory and then subsequently greater naval access to HMAS Stirling and the relevance of that, of course, is the rise of India and the rise of the Indian Ocean Rim as an area of strategic importance.
Just our highest priority, our first priority, the Marine task force group, that's on a timetable of five or six years from now until 2016-2017 so I'm not putting a timetable on our consideration of Cocos. That falls a long way behind the three priorities that I've referred to and the three priorities that we have made public for some time.
JOURNALIST: When do you think you might have some detailed discussions with the United States about Cocos Island?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not expecting any detailed discussions in the near future. We are focused, as I've said, on bedding down the implementation of the Marine task force group rotating out of Darwin. As I say, Kurt Campbell was here last week. We did not have a conversation about Cocos. I'm not envisaging a conversation with my counterparts on Cocos Island for some considerable time.
JOURNALIST: What kind of geographical reach would a drone have from Cocos?
STEPHEN SMITH: I see that the speculative report in the Washington Post which has been picked up here talks about using a Global Hawk drone for maritime purposes. A Global Hawk drone for maritime purposes has not been built yet. That capability doesn't currently exist so I regard that, frankly, as speculative. As I said overnight, we have not had a conversation with the United States at my level about what assets might be used in or out of Cocos. So I regard that as very much a speculative conversation.
JOURNALIST: Do you have concerns about the increasing use of drones by theUS?
STEPHEN SMITH: No.
JOURNALIST: Still on speculation, do you see that perhaps Cocos Island might one day replace Diego Garcia, the US harbour?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you're getting so far down the track that I'm not proposing to respond to that but I do make this point: Diego Garcia is a United States base. We do not have United States bases in Australia or in Australian territories and we're not proposing to. We either have joint facilities such as Pine Gap or we have access to Australian bases or facilities by United States Army, Navy and Air Force. So there's no proposal for a United States base in Australia or in its territories.
JOURNALIST: Getting to the attack on the aid worker, are there any implications for our mission in Afghanistan because of that?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have just under 20 AusAID and Civilian Corps workers inUruzgan Province in Afghanistan and in Kabul and they do very good work.
As a general proposition the force protection or the protection that is provided for them is provided either by Australian Defence Force personnel or by International Security Assistance Force personnel. On this occasion it was provided by International Security Assistance Force personnel.
We've been very satisfied with the level of force protection provided by the International Security Assistance Force just as we have bee satisfied with the force protection provided by our own Defence Force personnel.
In the aftermath of any terrible incident such as this there is always a review about the particular incident to see whether there are lessons to be learnt but that'll take a bit of time, I'm not proposing to prejudge that, but as a general proposition we've been satisfied and happy with the force protection that has been provided to our civilians in Afghanistan.
JOURNALIST: What about this possible use of children as suicide bombers? What kind of implications does that have for the mission and other Australians in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's contemptible. It's contrary to international law. Australia has a longstanding and proud record or arguing against the use of children in armed conflict and the use of children by the Taliban is revolting and contemptible.
JOURNALIST: Will it have any practical implications, do you think, for troops on the ground?
STEPHEN SMITH: There are always worries about suicide bombers inAfghanistan, just as there are always worries about the dangers of the roadside bombs, the IEDs, just as there are always worries about Taliban and other insurgency attacks. Afghanistan, whilst we have made progress both in terms of security but also in terms of training the Afghan National Army and the Afghan national and local police, Afghanistan continues to be a difficult and dangerous environment not just for our Defence Force personnel but for our civilians as the recent terrible incident has shown.
JOURNALIST: Can we really expect to win in a conflict where the enemy is willing to use children as weapons?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's not the first occasion where people have used children in armed conflict and, as I say, Australia has a proud and longstanding record of being strongly opposed to that. The use of children in such circumstances is contrary to international law, contrary to humanitarian laws but we believe we are on track to transition to Afghan-led security responsibility in Uruzgan Province by 2014, if not earlier and we strongly support the international community's commitment, expressed through the Lisbon summit, to transition out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
We don't want to be there forever, we can't be there forever, but we believe that in the last 18 months to two years we've made up substantial ground in terms of security on the ground itself but also made up substantial ground in terms of training and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces, to put them in the position to accept security responsibility.
Already nearly half of Afghanistan, in terms of population and geographical area has transitioned to Afghan security forces responsibility. We're expecting that Australia will be in the so-called third tranche of transition which will occur in the middle or the third quarter of this year and that'll start the process for our transition out of Afghanistan, out of Uruzgan Province.
JOURNALIST: The Guardian in theUK is reporting that UK forces or the UK plans to accelerate its exit from Afghanistan. Will that change our timetable?
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't seen that report but the conversations I've had with Philip Hammond, the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defence, and the statements I've seen from him, including in the recent aftermath of the terrible tragedy that beset the United Kingdom defence force personnel, is that the United Kingdom remains committed to the Lisbon summit strategy, transitioning out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and we expect that by the middle of 2013 the so-called Lisbon milestone would have been met, which is the fifth and final transition to Afghan-led security responsibility.
When that occurs then the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO forces will be there in a combat support role but the lead responsibility throughout all of Afghanistan would by then have transitioned to Afghan National Army and Afghan national police and Afghan local police and I haven't seen anything from Philip Hammond which is inconsistent with that. Indeed, the last occasion I was in Brussels with my NATO and ISAF colleagues, the one clarion call from all of the NATO and ISAF colleagues was the phrase in together, out together and that's the strong commitment which Philip Hammond has expressed to me and I don't expect to see any change from that.
JOURNALIST: But if that were to change, would it-
STEPHEN SMITH: As I say, I don't expect to see any change from that.