TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, AM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 4 MAY 2012
TOPICS: Defence Budget; Future Submarines; Joint Strike Fighter.
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now from Melbourne, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Minister, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Kieran.
KIERAN GILBERT: There's been a fair bit of criticism actually about these cuts yesterday. The former head of strategy at the Defence Department, now professor at the ANU, Professor Hugh White, says we pretend to be a middle power and we say we're a middle power but we have the defence capability of a small power. This is a country which has entirely lost any coherence in its strategic policy. Not a great assessment.
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't share that view. It's wrong. I mean, whether it is this morning, Friday morning, or whether it's Wednesday morning next week, after the Budget, Australia will still be in the G20 and will still be in the top 15 Defence spenders. We will come in at number 13 or 14, together with Canada. So we are significant contributor and we will continue to be.
Defence has got to make a contribution to returning the Budget to surplus because a strong economy, a surplus, is not just good for the Australian economy, not just good for Australia. This is also good for Defence and we're making a contribution in the way in which we are protecting important aspects of the defence organisation.
Our operations overseas won't be adversely affected; conditions and entitlements other than matters already going through the strategic reform program won't be affected; the kit and resources to our troops in the field won't be affected and, importantly, we won't make the mistake that was made after Vietnam, we won't be reducing military numbers.
And, so far as capability is concerned, we're protecting the core capability of the 2009 White Paper so I don't share Hugh's assessment.
What we announced yesterday, the Force Posture Review, the bringing forward of the White Paper to 2013, are very sensible, long term, strategic, important elements which will continue to protect and defend our national security interests into the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: He's not the only strategic expert that's been critical. Professor Dupont from the University of New South Wales says the best time to invade Australia will be around 2028-2030 because of a looming capability gap on the submarines. You can't guarantee out of yesterday's announcement that there won't be a capability gap, can you?
STEPHEN SMITH: And Professor Dupont certainly can't guarantee that we've got people sitting down this morning saying, you beauty, let's invade Australia 2028-2030. The White Paper 2009 shows no perceivable threat to invade Australia. I've seen nothing in any one sensible analysis that would indicate that we are at risk of being invaded in 2028, so let's just put that one to one side.
So far as submarines are concerned, two things. The Collins Class Submarines went into the water from 1996 to 2003. Their design life of type, in other words, their on-paper type of life was 28 years, taking the Collins fleet to 2031. We're currently doing an exhaustive assessment as to what their life of type will actually be.
We've seen, for example, the Ohio Class in the US have its life of type go from a 30-year design type to 40 years.
So we're being very careful about how we proceed with the Future Submarine program but also watching very carefully any gap in capability.
The real risk to our submarines is that the Liberal Party, the Shadow Minister for Defence, the Shadow Treasurer, the Leader of the Opposition, won't commit themselves to 12 submarines. Indeed, we've got the Shadow Minister for Defence and the Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, overnight saying not only won't they commit themselves to 12 submarines, they don't believe that Australia's got the capacity to do the project here.
KIERAN GILBERT: But why not? The point that Joe Hockey makes, isn't it a valid point to say if there's a less expensive, just as efficient option that we can acquire off the shelf out of the United States or elsewhere, that we should do that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Which is why yesterday I said we were exhaustively analysing four options from military off-the-shelf through to entirely new design and we're doing that exhaustive analysis in a responsible, methodical way.
But Joe Hockey said more than that and David Johnston, the Shadow Defence Minister, has said more than that. Not only will they not commit themselves to 12 submarines they're in print today saying Australia does not have the capacity to do this project or to do aspects of this project.
Yesterday I was at Adelaide with the Prime Minister and with the Premier of South Australia and we've got in South Australia the basis for ongoing maintenance and sustainment of our submarine fleet, the capacity to use the expertise there to be engaged in the build of our submarine fleet or the assembling of our submarine fleet.
What Joe Hockey has said is that he doesn't believe Australia has got the capacity to deal with the project on any of these levels. In other words, he is-
KIERAN GILBERT: Why haven't we seen progress-
STEPHEN SMITH: -essentially saying - well, you are seeing progress.
KIERAN GILBERT: -since '09 because - no, we're seeing another review, a $200 million scoping study, three years after they were first flagged.
STEPHEN SMITH: The assertion that nothing's been done is just wrong. Firstly, at the strategic level we've been in exhaustive conversations with our United States colleagues about the strategic design and complementing other strategic aspects of the United States-Australia alliance.
Secondly, this will be the largest defence project Australia has seen. Indeed, it'll be the largest capital works project that Australia has seen.
And off the back of the Collins Class Submarines, where we know for a 20-year period we have had long term endemic maintenance and sustainment difficulties, the only responsible thing to do was to make sure that we could improve the performance of the Collins Class Submarine - that's why I got a United Kingdom expert in, John Coles, to give us advice to improve that performance but also to make sure we learnt the lessons from the Collins.
The big mistake of the Collins was that we didn't take into account the maintenance and sustainment aspects of the long term. We won't make that same mistake with the Future Submarine program.
So my view, my judgment, is that it would have been irresponsible to proceed with the largest capital works or largest Defence project the country had ever seen without making sure we'd done the exhaustive, methodical work.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay.
STEPHEN SMITH: And what did yesterday was put ourselves on a path of making final decisions about the submarines around 2017, to put that 12 Future Submarine project on that timeline. Our political opponents, on the other hand, are saying not only won't we commit ourselves to 12 submarines, we don't believe Australia can do it. That's not a view I share.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let's look at the Joint Strike Fighters. You've delayed the acquisition of the 12 Joint Strike Fighters. That's on the timeline that Leon Panetta has announced.
Do you see it as inevitable that you will have to acquire more Super Hornets to ensure we are not left with an air capability gap?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've been saying for about six months three things. Firstly, that the two that we are contractually obliged to take we'll continue to receive in the United States for testing and training purposes in 2014-2015.
I've also been saying, excuse me, that in the course of this year we'd make a judgment about the timetable for the delivery of the next 12 and I made that announcement yesterday. We've now put ourselves effectively onto the same timetable that the United States has. You'd recall that my counterpart, US Defense Secretary Panetta, made a comparable adjustment to 179 Joint Strike Fighters a couple of months ago and I've been saying for some time the one thing we won't allow is a gap in capability and we will make that judgment in the course of this year.
We've currently got-
KIERAN GILBERT: So that means you will have to buy more Super Hornets, doesn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: We'll make that judgment in the course of this year. We've currently got 71-
KIERAN GILBERT: How else will you avoid a capability gap if you don't?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've currently got 71 classic Hornets. They have been and continue to go through a deep maintenance program so we've got to make a judgment about the ongoing effectiveness and capability and endurance of the classic Hornets.
We've got 24 Super Hornets. So currently, at this point in time, we are satisfied that we have the capability that we need to retain our combat capability in our region but in the course of this year we'll make a very careful, deliberative judgment about whether we are at risk of a capability gap and we will make the judgment in the course of this year and, in the meantime, whilst the Joint Strike Fighter project has had its difficulties, I'm confident that in the end the variety which we have chosen, the conventional variety, will eventually prove to be a successful product, a successful fighter.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for that.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Kieran, thanks very much.