TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH CRAIG MCMURTRIE, ABC AM
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 27 JULY 2011
TOPICS: Joint Strike Fighter.
TONY EASTLEY: Australia's Defence Minister Stephen Smith is in Washington and he is worried about money, but it's not the huge debt debate that is crippling US politics that concerns him. Rather, Mr Smith is worried at the huge cost overruns that are plaguing some of Australia's big ticket defence purchases like the Joint Strike Fighter program.
Stephen Smith has told AM that he's warned Pentagon officials time is running out for the program to get back on schedule and he says there's a danger that deep cuts in US defence spending could ultimately affect Australia's defence plans.
He's speaking here to our correspondent Craig McMurtrie.
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a matter for the American system to resolve these debt issues but one thing which is clear is that there is a very live prospect that there will be further budget cuts so far as defence is concerned, so obviously we're following that very carefully - and also following that with an eye to whatever implications that might have for capability, for acquisition, but also for operation.
So obviously we have an interest in seeing that resolved one way or the other because it may well have some implications.
CRAIG MCMURTRIE: In these cost-cutting times here in DC more US politicians are criticising cost blowouts in the Joint Strike Fighter project. Senator McCain has called it an "incredibly troubled program" and a "train wreck". Do you agree with his assessment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'll leave it to others to give their own characterisation.
I've met today with Admiral Venlet, who is the CEO of the Joint Strike Fighter program office.
I've already expressed my concerns publicly and privately that whilst in our own planning we made a number of sensible decisions, we chose the conventional variant. We've also made sure that in our own schedule for time, for delivery and for cost that there was plenty of padding for what you always have to expect in a high technology, complicated new development, which is slippage. But we're now running close up to those schedules, particularly on delivery.
So I've made the point very clear that we're now monitoring very closely the delivery timetable. We're also monitoring very closely the cost.
CRAIG MCMURTRIE: What are your options, though, if these blowouts, these delays continue?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's quite clear that there will be an exhaustive risk assessment done of the current schedule and that'll be available to the US administration and to partners like Australia I expect by the end of the year or early next year.
That will then enable us to start making some judgements about whether we need to make any other plans or take any other action so far as a potential gap in capability is concerned.
CRAIG MCMURTRIE: Does that mean possibly more Super Hornets?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's an obvious option, but we need to take this step by step. It's early days; I don't want people to run or leap to a conclusion that that is the path we'll go down. There is some more time. We need to continue to monitor the situation very carefully and closely.
CRAIG MCMURTRIE: I'm curious. How would you describe the political atmosphere in this town right now?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a very interesting time and there's a lot of frenetic activity. In the end, my own judgement after years of watching our own system and the American system is that these things will be resolved but generally resolved at the death knock.