TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL ROWLAND, ABC24 BREAKFAST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 26 JULY 2011
TOPICS: United Nations;Afghanistan;Collins Class Submarines; Joint Strike Fighter.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: The Defence Minister Stephen Smith has met the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inNew Yorkovernight. The conflict in Afghanistan and the situation in South Sudan were among the topics discussed during that meeting and Stephen Smith joins us now from New York.
Minister good morning and thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Michael.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Before we get on to Afghanistan a lot of Australians wouldn't be aware that of course we do participate in those UN sponsored peace missions in countries likeSudanandEast Timor, that was obviously front and centre of your chat with the UN Secretary-General.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'm in the United States for three days, spending today Monday in New York at the United Nations dealing with the peace keeping and peace building contribution that Australia makes, so I met earlier today with the Secretary-General. We went through some of the important peacekeeping missions that Australia either has an interest in or we're involved in, East Timor obviously one. But also the new mission to South Sudan, the new country of South Sudan and we discussed what contribution Australia may be able to make to that new United Nations peacekeeping mission in the south of Sudan.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: You head to Washington after this for talks with the still fairly new US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Afghanistan will be the top of the agenda items there, are you confident that the mission is still on-track despite as we've seen in recent weeks some more Taliban attacks including the killing of the Afghan president's half brother.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I spoke about Afghanistan with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The mission in Afghanistan is of course supported by a United Nations Resolution which has been updated and renewed on a regular basis for the last decade. But later this week on Wednesday I'll meet with Defense Secretary Panetta where we'll go through our shared analysis of Afghanistan.
We continue to believe - Australia continues to believe that we are making progress in Afghanistan. We believe that there can't just be a military solution in Afghanistan, there also has to be a political solution and we're obviously encouraging political reconciliation and a political settlement and that's certainly formed part of my conversation with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations.
But we think we've made progress in Afghanistan but we know that it continues to be tough, to be dangerous and to be difficult but we think we're on-track to transition to Afghan led security responsibility by 2014. But it won't just be a military solution inAfghanistan, it also has to be a political solution led by the Afghan government.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: We keep hearing about this so-called political solution and the prospects of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government but realistically I mean how soon and how promi [indistinct] how soon can they happen and how promising will they be?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Secretary Panetta's predecessor Secretary Gates recently put on the public record that there had occurred talks which he described as preliminary outreach. I've never sought to put it higher than that. But what we do know is that the Taliban will only come to the table if we continue to make combat or military or enforcement progress against them and we do know that that has been occurring.
We've also known that in the course of this northern summer fighting season that the Taliban would strike back, not just on the ground in Uruzgan and in other parts of the country but also through the high profile propaganda motivated attacks and as you correctly pointed out, regrettably we've seen a number of those in recent times including the assassination of President Karzai's half brother, so they are a resilient foe but we continue to need to make progress.
But in the end the solution in Afghanistan needs to include a political settlement and the ultimate responsibility for that will be with the Afghan government but Australia and the other NATO and international security assistance forces obviously strongly support such an outcome.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: You'll also be discussing the future of Australia's troubled submarine fleet while you're in the United States. As we all know the Collins Class submarines have had their fair share of issues and you've recently commissioned a review into that program, what sort of help are you seeking from the US military, the US navy in terms of replacing those Collins Class submarines here in Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's really at two levels. Firstly a strategic conversation. Australia's conventional submarine fleet will complimentAmerica's nuclear submarine fleet and the one thing I have ruled is that we're not contemplating at all nuclear powered submarines, ours will be a conventional fleet as the Collins Class is.
But there are a range of issues in terms of the building of the new submarine fleet which the United States either has expertise or where we can fruitfully benefit from a conversation.
Weapon system is one area, communication system is another, propulsion is another. So there's a range of both government and industry expertise that we think can be of assistance so far as Australia is concerned. We are very methodically and assiduously doing our early preparation and planning.
This is a long term project in our new submarine fleet; 12 submarines which we've committed to assembling in South Australia in Adelaide. It will be the largest single Defence capability project that the Commonwealth of Australia has ever seen. So we're doing a lot of preparatory work, we want to get it right and that also of course comes in the backdrop of long standing well entrenched difficulties with the Collins Class submarine both in terms of maintenance and sustainment.
And as you correctly indicate in the last week or so I've announced a review by the United Kingdom expert John Coles to look at whether we can get better operational performance out of the Collins Class submarine by doing our maintenance and sustainment better.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: And finally Minister speaking of trouble plagued projects it's hard to avoid when you are in talks with your US counterparts the trouble plagued Joint Strike Fighter Project, trouble plagued I point out from the American end, cost overruns and various other project issues, is the Australian government still committed to buying 100 of those fighter planes?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've committed to buying 14. We've made that clear. We also are in the market for Joint Strike Fighters beyond 14 but we haven't placed any firm order or commitment for any more than 14. But obviously we want the project to be successful. We are very conscious that there have been both cost and schedule delays and that will form a part of my conversations with not just Secretary of Defense Panetta but also with other officials.
When we embarked upon the project, built into our project a lot of capacity for slippage both in terms of cost but also delay but we are starting to rub up against that. So we're very conscious of delay in the project and monitoring that very closely. But the briefings I get from US officials here will be very helpful in us planning for the future of that project.
But we shouldn't be under any illusions other than that the United States system is absolutely committed to getting the project up but I think I'll benefit very much from the conversations I have over the next few days with Defense Secretary Panetta and also his officials on that particular project.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay Stephen Smith in New York, thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Michael, thanks very much.