TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH FRAN KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 4 MAY 2012
TOPICS: Joint Strike Fighter; Defence Budget; Woomera Protected Area; United States.
FRAN KELLY: The Defence Minister Stephen Smith is in our Melbourne studios. Minister good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Fran.
FRAN KELLY: This decision to delay the purchase of the Joint Strike Fighters you told us yesterday will save $1.6 billion, handily that's about the amount of the predicted budget surplus. So if you went ahead with buying the planes on time as planned, the Government wouldn't meet its promise to get back in the black, it's as simple as that isn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well no, a couple of points. Firstly the Government had absolutely committed to return the budget to surplus and pretty much every agency, every department will make a contribution to that in its own way. Defence makes its own contribution so I wouldn't be hypothecating in the manner in which you have firstly.
Secondly it wouldn't make sense in my view for us to purchase 12 Joint Strike Fighters on the timetable that was originally suggested. What I've done is to do precisely what US Secretary for Defence Leon Panetta has done a few months ago when he moved to the right to use the Defence jargon, 179 planes. And so we are now effectively on the same page so far as the scheduled purchasing arrangements of the Joint Strike Fighters are concerned.
From a forward estimates point of view that has the effect of moving the project two years to the right and that saves on paper $1.6 billion. But we remain committed to the project, the project has had its developmental and scheduling difficulties and-
FRAN KELLY: You can say that again.
STEPHEN SMITH: And I've made the point repeatedly over the last six months that firstly we will not allow a gap in our air combat capability to occur as a result of delays in the Joint Strike Fighter, and so we'll do that before the end of the year. We've got 71 Classic Hornets and 24 Super Hornets but we've got to monitor that and look at that very carefully.
Secondly I've been saying for some time we'd make a judgement this year about when we placed our order for the first 12 Joint Strike Fighters. We'll get two for training and testing purposes in the United States in 2014/15, but I've been saying for some time we'll make a judgement this year about when we put in our order for the next 12. We've committed ourselves to 14 and I made that announcement yesterday.
FRAN KELLY: Minister there's plenty of people around the world suggesting that Governments like ours should be revisiting this judgement and this commitment overall. An article in the Foreign Policy magazine website this week assessing the progress of the Joint Strike Fighters found obviously the cross-over runs are massive and growing, the latest cost blowout in the US, then the costing out to $379 billion, it's almost 10 years late in delivery, and to quote that article it says; it's no wonder that they're talking about the jets, they're not the wonder the advocates claim. It's a gigantic performance disappointment and in some respects a step backwards.
Do we even want these fighter jets?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we do. The previous Government made a judgement about these and we have continued that.
FRAN KELLY: Yes, but you as the Minister, are you keeping a track of all this growing criticism about this project, which suggests that the delays in it, meaning that it's just behind schedule and behind the times really is what it can deliver?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I keep track of all the commentary and all of the analysis, whether it's our own analysis or whether it's from the United States.
Now this project will get up and the plane will get up because the United States is absolutely committed to it. We've made a couple of sensible decisions as a Government. Firstly we have only ever been interested in the conventional Joint Strike Fighter, we've not worried about the variance and a lot of the developmental issues and difficulties have had to do with the other two variants, the Harrier jump jet variant and the like.
Secondly we have been very assiduous about making sure that whilst we're part of the program, that this Government has not pre-committed ourselves to too early or too many purchases. Other Governments, including for example Canada, have got themselves into some difficulties by pre-committing to large numbers of planes well in advance of seeing these difficulties unfold.
So we've committed ourselves contractually to two. They'll be delivered in 2014/15 and we'll make as I said a judgement about our next 12 two years later than otherwise was the case. But I'm confident, I've always been confident this project would get up and I've always been confident that the plane would deliver greater capability than what is currently available through either our Hornets or our Super Hornets.
FRAN KELLY: Let's go back to the numbers in the budget and your budget in particular, can you confirm the numbers - $3 billion cuts to Defence that you announced yesterday, another $2 million to be announced - $2 billion to be announced on budget night?
STEPHEN SMITH: What I said yesterday was that when you look at the deferral of the Joint Strike Fighter, I also announced that we wouldn't be proceeding with the self propelled Howitzer, self propelled artillery, we wouldn't be proceeding with that aspect of an artillery.
FRAN KELLY: Yes but all the papers said yesterday there's going to be another $2 billion worth of cuts to Defence announced.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well what I indicated yesterday was essentially $1.6 plus a quarter of a billion, so up to $2 billion. I was very happy to put that on the public record but I have not gone any further other than just say you need to expect that there will be more savings in the Defence Budget. People can speculate all they like but I'm not proposing to add to my remarks until later next week. I'll leave it to the Treasurer for the precise amounts.
FRAN KELLY: You have railed long and hard against waste in Defence, would you say that the cuts that do come on Budget night will make Defence more efficient when it comes to spending, or less effective because that's the criticism?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen commentary overnight from a couple of commentators and one from ASPI has been an analysis that they'll be difficult but manageable, and I think that's right. They will be difficult, it will be tough and we've had to make some difficult decisions but they will be manageable and we have ring-fenced some very important areas which are important to the present, but also important strategically to the long term.
So no adverse implications on our overseas operations whether that's Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands or East Timor. No adverse implications for military numbers. No adverse implications for the kit and resources delivered to our people in the field and no attack on the conditions and entitlements to service men and women, other than things that we're moving through the system under this strategic reform program. So that's the very important-
FRAN KELLY: With respect Minister, given that these costs will have impact into the future, we don't know where our men and women will be in the field in the years ahead.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well what we do know is at the moment we're in Afghanistan, we're in the Solomon Islands and East Timor, the last two on a stabilisation and peacekeeping mission, and nothing will occur which will be adverse to those two or to Afghanistan.
We're also in a drawdown, an orderly transition post-2014 from Afghanistan and also there's a distinct likelihood of a drawdown over the next 12-18 months two years from East Timor and the Solomon Islands and that drawdown from a decade long Middle East land based operations is one of the strategic reasons why we've brought forward the White Paper to the first half of next year, 2013, because we don't want to make the same mistakes that were made in the aftermath of Vietnam, which was an attack upon military numbers, firstly, and secondly not carefully thinking about what the drawdown and withdrawal from Indochina at that time meant for Australia. We're effectively-
FRAN KELLY: These draw-downs were completely foreseeable when the White Paper was drawn up in 2009, it's no surprise that we're going to be pulling out of Afghanistan or the Solomons really, is it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in 2009, frankly there was no coherent transition plan out of Afghanistan, firstly.
Secondly, insofar as East Timor and the Solomon Islands was concerned, you couldn't see the turning point, or the pivot point, where we might be able to, as part of a regional mission, and in the case of East Timor, a UN mission, responsibly draw down from that stabilisation force.
We've got a much clearer path now in East Timor, with successful Presidential elections, I was in the Solomon Islands last week, and for the first time, in discussions with the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, we agreed the time had come to transition the stabilisation force there from a force which has a military component, to essentially a public and law and order force, through a police contribution.
So I'm not sure you can say that of the 2009 White Paper, nor can you say of the 2009 White Paper that we envisaged the ongoing consolidation - in the manner in which it's unfolded, the ongoing consolidation of strategic weight shifting to our part of the world, China, India, the ASEAN economies.
And we didn't see at that time the very strong message from the United States that not only will it continue to maintain its engagement in the Asia Pacific region, it will enhance it, and we've seen that through its Global Force Posture Review, which is not just seeing us enhancing our practical cooperation with them in the Northern Territory and later down the track, in my own state of Western Australia through HMAS Stirling, but also through their arrangements with Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and the like.
FRAN KELLY: Okay, well you talk about commentary, and perhaps one of the strongest commentaries in response to your announcement yesterday came from Greg Sheridan, who writes in The Australian, he's the foreign editor of The Australian, he says, 'This is the worst day for Australia's national security since the fall of Saigon in 1975'. What's your reaction to that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Um, amusement, shrill, out of the ball park, I just think it's a nonsense statement-
FRAN KELLY: Well, let me put a statement from the Opposition to you. 'The Prime Minister must be hoping and praying there'll be no major security crisis in the next five, 10 or 20 years, because we will not have a properly funded Defence Force'.
And another analyst, Professor Alan Dupont, director of the Institute for International Security at the University of New South Wales, says, 'The best time to invade Australia will be between 2028 and 2030, it's touch and go whether we'll have any subs to deploy then, because of the delay in starting work on the replacement for the Collins Class subs.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, dealing with those in order, firstly, the Opposition would say that, but to move to - and it's not an analysis that we share, I've drawn your attention to those very important areas that we have ring-fenced, I can very easily find a couple of billion dollars by immediately withdrawing our people from Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and East Timor, but that would not be in our national interest.
What we're also trying to do is to make sure that the core capability in the White Paper 2009 is protected, whether that's Air Warfare Destroyers, whether it's Landing Helicopter Docks, whether it's Naval helicopters, whether it's submarines.
On submarines, you haven't got, and you won't get a commitment out of the Opposition for our future submarine program, indeed you've got David Johnston, the Shadow Minister for Defence, and you've got Joe Hockey, the Shadow Treasurer, essentially saying either we shouldn't do this, or if we do do it, we should just simply buy military off the shelf, without any analysis as to whether that gives us the capability we deserve.
So far as Mr Dupont is concerned, the White Paper 2009 makes it clear that there is no foreseeable threat to Australia in terms of an attack upon Australia, or a threat to Australia, and I've seen nothing which would indicate that, so I don't think we've got people circling Australia, thinking about an invasion by 2028.
The final point is this. One of the things that we released yesterday was the final Force Posture Review, which I commissioned last year with Allan Hawke and Ric Smith, two former Secretaries of the Department of Defence. That does make the point that with a decade-long land expeditionary force in the Middle East, there's a perception that we have lost sight of the Defend Australia policy, and the need to make sure we've got adequate resources to our northern and western approaches to the north and to the west, and that's also a very significant and important strategic reason why the White Paper will be brought forward.
But I don't share any of the analysis that you have put to me this morning, I share the ASPI analysis, which is these are difficult times for Defence, just as they'll be difficult times for other departments and agencies, but we believe it's manageable, and we believe that we have ring-fenced the core capability that we need, and the core contributions and obligations that we have at the moment, so far as our field operations are concerned.
FRAN KELLY: It's 18 minutes past eight, our guest this morning is Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
Minister, we're almost out of time, but if I could get a quick response from you, on a couple of questions?
As we heard on AM, the Defence Force is changing the access rules for mining companies in the Woomera area, that's been used in the past for weapons testing, it's a resource-rich area, one mining company is selling its tenement saying the Defence Department's impossible to work with, can you shed any light on this?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that might be an analysis which was true for the past, but what Resources Minister and I, Martin Ferguson did last year, together with then South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, was to essentially have a basis for agreed access to substantial parts of the Woomera training and weapons testing ground.
So there'll be some areas where they are so important to weapons testing, that we can't allow access, but we've essentially potentially opened up the vast bulk of the Woomera testing range for joint access, done in a sensible way, in fact I was in Adelaide yesterday with the Prime Minister, spoke to Premier Weatherill, and this was one of the things that we spoke about, which is the good cooperation between Martin Ferguson and I, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia, and the Premier of South Australia, moving forward on a much better shared access regime, so far as Woomera is concerned this is a very significant decision we've made, and it'll be good for the minerals resources industry, not just South Australia, but generally in Australia, but it also won't have any long term adverse impact on our capacity to test the weapon systems that we need to protect our national security interests.
FRAN KELLY: And just briefly Minister, reaction to the release by the White House overnight of some of those bin Laden papers, letters or draft letters revealing a man anxious about his terror network, worried about its image, and a little burdened by what he saw as the incompetence of other jihadist groups, and it also showed he had little control over those other networks, does that surprise you, he's not perhaps the puppet master that you might have thought?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he was the puppet master in his own area, and he was a significant danger to the national security interests, not just of the United States, but of the world generally, and that's why it was important to pursue him in the way in which he was pursued.
I haven't had the opportunity, given that I've been focusing on other areas, to go through the fine detail of that, but one point it does make to me is it just reinforces the point that, you know, it's a regrettable feature of our modern life, of post-September modern life, that the international terrorist threat is ever-present, and we have to be vigilant, we have to be sensible about the way in which we conduct ourselves in the face of that threat.
But it remains one of the reasons why we're in Afghanistan, because we don't want Afghanistan to return to an international terrorist breeding ground, or home base-
FRAN KELLY: Okay-
STEPHEN SMITH: -but regrettably, that threat will continue for the foreseeable future for Australians who travel overseas, whether it's South East Asia, whether it's Europe, or whether it's the United States.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran, thanks very much.