TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP INTERVIEW, WASHINGTON
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 27 JULY 2011
TOPICS: Force Posture Review; Afghanistan; Joint Strike Fighter; Cyber security.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. I've just come from my meeting with Secretary for Defense Leon Panetta and have had a very good and productive conversation dealing with very many of the issues that I've spoken about publicly, and with other officials in the course of my visit to Washington.
Firstly and obviously Afghanistan, sharing our assessment on Afghanistan, committing ourselves to the transition to a military and political strategy - but also starting a conversation about what the post-transition contributions from Australia, the United States, other International Security Assistance Force countries might look like. And that's reflected by the resolution of ISAF Defence Ministers' last meeting in Brussels.
Also, the Force Posture Review; looking forward to a good conversation about the United States Global Force Posture Review and Australia's own Force Posture Review at AUSMIN in September in San Francisco. And then a couple of key capability projects, the Joint Strike Fighter and also submarines- and I'm very pleased that in terms of submarines assurances from Secretary Panetta and his officials that we can continue to have a good conversation about the strategic requirements but also a conversation about the sort of technical assistance that the United States and United States industry might be able to provide for what will be Australia's largest ever Defence capability project.
So I’m very pleased with my first formal meeting with Secretary Panetta, and also had the opportunity of a courtesy call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where we spoke generally about Afghanistan and also the changing geopolitical circumstances in the Asia-Pacific and also looking forward to a conversation with her at AUSMIN about those matters.
Happy to respond to your questions.
JOURNALIST: Anything new on the post-transition contributions to Afghanistan for us?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, as Defence Ministers made clear at Brussels at our most recent meeting, we think the time has come to start the conversation.
Australia is absolutely committed to the transition process in Uruzgan, to making the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility but the Prime Minister and I and the Foreign Minister have made it clear that after the transition in 2014 we do see an ongoing role for Australia.
Now, that might be further training, institutional training in specialist or niche areas, it might be a security overwatch role, it might be Special Forces.
We think it'll certainly be further development assistance and capacity building, but the time has now come to start doing the thinking about that and both the United States and Australia are at a very early stage of that consideration but it's on the agenda now for the NATO and International Security Assistance Force Defence Ministers so the work will now start.
JOURNALIST: What about assurances on the F-35? Any new assurances on the Joint Strike Fighter, particularly I'm thinking, if budget cuts here mean fewer are commissioned, on unit costs?
STEPHEN SMITH: I had that conversation with Secretary Panetta and also had a very good conversation with Under Secretary for Acquisition and Capability, Ash Carter, this morning as well.
I made the same points privately as I've made publicly, which is we are very conscious about further delay in schedule because we don't want to see and can't see a gap in capability so far as Australia is concerned but there'll be a very rigorous assessment before the end of the year on scheduling and that puts us in a position to make some judgments next year on cost.
You're quite right, I've made the same point myself which is if there are fewer Joint Strike Fighters purchased by the US Air Force and the US Navy then that will have the effect of increasing the unit cost but, again, there's a fair bit - a fair bit of water to go under the bridge before such a decision is made.
JOURNALIST: There's increasing talk in this town that al-Qaeda might be near strategic defeat in the wake of bin Laden's killing. I'm wondering if you think those assessments are premature and with regard to Australia if you think al-Qaeda and its affiliates still have the capability to launch a major attack in Australia and its environs.
STEPHEN SMITH: I think, firstly, that while it's clearly the case that al-Qaeda has suffered some very considerable damage and not just restricted to the death of bin Laden, it's way too early to claim victory.
Certainly al-Qaeda is on the back foot in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area but al-Qaeda has a presence in other parts of the world and so I think it's way too early to claim victory and we also know that part of our reason for being in Afghanistan, for continuing in Afghanistan, to do the transition job in Afghanistan, is if we were to leave now that would leave a vacuum into which the remnants of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations would fall and, just as a general proposition, al-Qaeda is not the only international terrorist organisation.
International terrorist threats don't come only from al-Qaeda and it's a regrettable fact of modern life that whether it's Australia, whether it's the United States, whether it's Europe, we have to be constantly vigilant as against the threat of terrorist activity.
In Australia's case we have regrettably and sadly been on the receiving end of terrorist activity in Indonesia, in Europe and in the United States here itself.
JOURNALIST: Just back on the F-35, very briefly. I know you made your point but on the unit cost, did you get any reassurances from the new Secretary?
STEPHEN SMITH: There's a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and when such decisions will be made. It's quite clearly the case that, irrespective of the deficit and budget outcomes, that there will be further Defence cuts and that's, I think, clear to all concerned and that will see changed arrangements so far as a range of United States programs are concerned but we need to take it step by step to allow the administration to make those changes and then for Australia to see what adverse consequences, if any, flow from that.
JOURNALIST: Did you talk about cyber-security? The Pentagon had an announcement back in March. I'm curious about whether that was touched on.
STEPHEN SMITH: We spoke about AUSMIN, security for AUSMIN, cyber-security is a feature of AUSMIN for San Francisco in September. The then Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and I at Melbourne last year announced our agreement to work closely together on cyber-security. That's occurring. We're also working trilaterally very closely with the United Kingdom so very good work is occurring.
I made the point today in response to a question that I see cyber security as very much one of the key challenges that we face. It's a challenge not just for nation states; it's also a challenge for business and industry and for individuals.
The single most important thing we can do at this stage on cyber security is to raise everyone's awareness. This is not just a problem for nations and it's not just an issue of nations as against nations. There are a lot of non-state actors out there.
So this is a key issue for all of us and we are working very closely with the United States both at ministerial level and also at agency level to make sure we're doing everything we can on cyber security.
JOURNALIST: Just one more?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yep.
JOURNALIST: With the vote coming up at the United Nations in September on unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, is there any prospect in your mind Australia would vote with the Palestinians?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's a matter you need to speak to the Foreign Minister about.
Okay, cheers. Thanks everyone.