TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP – RAAF AMBERLEY
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 5 October 2012
TOPICS: Growler; P-8A Project; Afghanistan; Defence Capability Guide; Margie Abbott; Defence Budget; Social Impact Study; Italian Custody Dispute.
STEPHEN SMITH:? Thanks very much for turning up, I'm very pleased to be here today with Chief of Air Force Geoff Brown. Also very pleased to be with the United States Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, and also pleased that Amberley's local Federal Member Shayne Neumann has also joined us.
This is an historic occasion. Over the years for all of the years of our alliance between Australia and the United States we've seen on a regular basis US Air Force and Navy planes come to Australia for training and exercises. This is the first occasion that we've seen US Navy Growlers come to Australia and to start the training and the exercise and the exchange of expertise required to see Australia having a Growler capability. We'll get that Growler capability on the current timetable of about 2016 with an initial operating capability 2018.
This has been a long and very positive story. The Government decided some time ago, a number of years ago to purchase 24 Super Hornets, a decision made by one of my predecessors, Brendan Nelson. One of my immediate predecessors Joel Fitzgibbon made the decision in 2009 that 12 of those 24 Super Hornets would be wired for Growler and progressively over that time we've taken the necessary steps to leave open the potential for requiring the Growler capability.
We're going through some tough financial and fiscal times, we're no orphans in that, that's also shared by our United States colleagues but we're able to manage our resources to shortly after the budget announce the purchase of the Growler capability, that's about a $1.5 billion purchase, and that will see us with 24 Super Hornets, 12 wired up for Growler but with the capacity to have six Growlers in the air at any given time.
And this is a very significant capability. To use the technical jargon all of the open source reporting from Libya showed how effective this electronic warfare capability is, both in a defensive sense but also in an attack sense. And so this is a most significant capability. I said in my earlier remarks that the Chief of Air Force has described this in his view as the most effective air combat capability that we've acquired since the F1-11.
Yesterday the Minister for Defence Materiel was here as well, announcing some of the sites for disposal of the F1-11 which is now part of Australian iconic folklore and air combat and aviation history and folklore. So this is a most significant capability.
In this acquisition we've worked very closely with the United States, as Ambassador Bleich said, we're the only country other than the United States to pick up the Growler capability. And Defence and Air Force have also worked very closely with Boeing. So this has been a very good collaborative working relationship under the general umbrella of our alliance with the United States.
I'll ask the Chief of Air Force Geoff Brown to make some remarks and then ask the Ambassador to make some remarks. And before we take the questions there are a couple of other announcements I'll make and I'll do that after the two Geoffrey’s have spoken about Growler.
GEOFF BROWN:? Thanks very much, and today is a very significant day for us. I think it just demonstrates the strength of the relationship that we've got with the US and especially with the US Navy that they would actually deploy their best squadron down to Australia so quickly after we've made the announcement. For us this is incredibly critical as we scope out what we've actually got to do to introduce this capability, just building a Growler is one part of it but actually building the people skills that we need to actually operate it effectively is incredibly important. And I'd just like to take this opportunity to thank the US for their cooperation in actually coming to this exercise so quickly. Thank you.
JEFFREY BLEICH:? It's a very exciting day for us here in Amberley and I want to thank the Defence Minister and the Air Marshal Chief of the Air Force Geoff Brown for their leadership in bringing us to this point. The Growler is our most sensitive, sophisticated and it's some of our most important equipment and it would only be in the case where we trusted another nation the way we trust Australia that we'd be prepared to share it. It's with great pride that we have that kind of relationship with Australia that we begin this chapter.
If you look at the squadron that was sent down here it was one of our most decorated squadrons in the entire United States Navy, some of our finest aviators have been honoured for their work everywhere, including recently in Libya, and we're happy not only that they're here to begin the process of training and developing interoperable capability with the Growler, but also we had the chance to have a change of command ceremony and to welcome Commander Kurtz who is the new commander of the AQ-132 the Scorpions and so go Navy, go Scorpions and congratulations Commander Kurtz.
STEPHEN SMITH:? Thanks, Jeff. Just a couple of other things before we respond to your questions. Jason Clare, the Defence Materiel Minister, and I are today releasing the first defence capability guide. Shortly after the budget we released the public defence capability plan which these days covers the four-year forward estimate years.
After consultation with industry we've decided to also publish a six-year defence capability guide which covers the six year period following on from the forward estimate years. This gives industry a guide as to what capability proposals defence has in mind for future years. It's a guide only, but it's intended to give industry as much information as possible to enable industry to do the necessary forward planning for potential acquisitions down the track.
Secondly we're announcing today that we are committing about $70 million into the third stage of the P-8 project. In terms of our maritime and manned aviation surveillance planes we of course operate a fleet of nearly 20 Orion P-3s including a couple which have done for a long period of time very good service in the Middle East. We will ultimately replace our Orion P-3s with a P-8- it's a long term project.
The Orions are expected to remain in service until the end of this decade before the start of the 2020s, but we have committed ourselves to further work on the P-8 project, and we're again doing that in collaboration with our United States colleagues. So a couple of announcements there, and those materials will be distributed in the course of the day.
We're happy to respond to your questions.
JOURNALIST: ?Minister the P-8s, [indistinct] they seem to like flying here, maybe you could relocate them here in Queensland?
STEPHEN SMITH: ?Well as chance would have it later on today I go to Adelaide to do an announcement with the Premier of South Australia. The P-3s are based out of the Edinburgh base in Adelaide, and whilst we've made no formal decisions of decisions that we don't need to make for some considerable time, I think there's an expectation that the P-8s will probably end up in Edinburgh but this is a long term decision. So the P-3s have done very good service out of Edinburgh. That's the starting point, but by the time we get to 2019 or 2020 we'll be in a position to make a formal decision about that.
Having said that, in Amberley we've got C-17s, Hornets and Super Hornets and the service men and women here do great work utilising those fleets.
JOURNALIST: ?The Americans obviously aren't releasing this technology to everybody, how robust were those discussions in getting them to open the door and let it come this way?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Not robust at all. This has been a longstanding positive collaborative project. When we came to Government at the end of 2007 one of the first things Minister Fitzgibbon did following on from a decision made by Brendan Nelson to acquire 24 Super Hornets was to ensure 12 of those were wired up for Growler. In some respects that was a threshold decision for the United States. If the United States wasn't confident or comfortable with us having Growler then we wouldn't have had 12 wired up with that potential.
But as Ambassador Bleich just said, it just underlies the very close, confident, mutual respect and trust working relationship that we have with the United States.
We've had an alliance that has been good for over 60 years. It started in the darkest days of World War II, and it's been a very successful alliance for the United States and for Australia, it's been a force for security and peace and stability in our region.
So it's just another example of the good practical cooperative work that's done under the alliance.
JOURNALIST: ?Minister, the Greens have said today that nobody can actually explain why Australia remains in Afghanistan. Can you explain it?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Yes, in precisely the same terms that I have for a long period of time, which is we want to do our bit together with the international community under a United Nations mandate with 50 other countries to ensure that the Afghanistan Pakistan border area has not become a breeding ground or a training ground for international terrorism.
We're approaching the Anniversary of the Bali bombing.
Innocent Australian civilians have been the victims of terrorist attack in South-East Asia, in Europe, and in the United States. And we want to do our bit together with the international community to ensure that that area doesn't again become a breeding ground for international terrorism. And that's why we are training the Afghan National Security Forces to be in a position on transition to be responsible for security in Afghanistan.
We face - as we always have - a tough and resilient opponent. But we are also pleased with the progress that is being made so far as the Afghan National Security Forces acquiring the skills necessary to take over security responsibility for their own country.
We can't be in Afghanistan forever, we don't want to be in Afghanistan forever. We're on track for transition in Uruzgan Province over the next 12 to 18 months. And we're very strongly of the view that Afghanistan is on track to transition by the end of December 2014 which is the agreed timetable arising from the Chicago and the Lisbon summits.
The Greens have a different policy. The Greens policy of longstanding is to withdraw overnight our contribution to Afghanistan.
Our judgment is that if we did that we would enhance the risks in Afghanistan not reduce them.
JOURNALIST:? Do you see that - the recent Campbell Newman slashing jobs in Queensland, do you see that as a chance for the ADF to do a bit of a recruitment drive, and pick up medical, nursing students?
STEPHEN SMITH: ?Well I'm not proposing to link the two. The ADF and Army and Navy and Air Force, you know, run very comprehensive recruitment programs. And currently we've got good recruitment and retention rates. Where we do have gaps - or where we do have challenges - is in a range of technical or specialised areas and that's essentially where we look for lateral entry or we look to entry from experienced service men and women from overseas who've got the requisite skills.
So we're very pleased with our recruitment and retention. We've got a number of skills challenges. But we're no orphans in that respect. That's the challenge that a range of organisations and industries face in Australia.
JOURNALIST:? Minister, the Defence Capability Guide, is that essentially an interim Defence Capability Plan until you get the, that next white paper out?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well no, it's - in some respect it's a run into the White Paper. Let me take you back - in 2009 with the publication of that White Paper. Shortly after that we published a Defence Capability Plan.
That was over a 10 year period.
Subsequent discussions with industry - which Jason Clare, the Defence Materiel Minister and I have had with industry over the last six to 9 to 12 months. We wanted to try and give industry a better guide about what was coming down the track.
One of the problems with a 10 year Defence Capability Plan is that beyond the Forward Estimate years it's very hard to be precise. And I'm on the public record as saying I thought that the Defence Capability Plan was over-programmed - in other words there was too much in it - and that we could do and provide industry with much better information.
And so as a result of the discussions we've had we've now settled upon a four year Defence Capability Plan which is precise and definite because it's covered by the Forward Estimate years and the Budget papers themselves, and then a six year plan.
The plan is intended to give industry the best level of information we can about potential future projects. They're projects that haven't come for formal Government consideration, either for first past or for second past.
So far as the White Paper is concerned, we'll publish a White Paper in the first half of next year. There'll be a Defence Capability Plan and a Defence Capability Guide which will be published in association with that, not necessarily at the same time.
We've committed ourselves to a publication of a Defence Capability Plan and a Defence Capability Guide at least on an annual basis. But there is some symmetry there, it makes sense on the publication of a new white paper in the first half of 2013 to follow that or associate that with a Defence Capability Plan and a Defence Capability Guide.
And that's what we intend to do.
JOURNALIST: ?Minister, what was your reaction today to Mrs Abbott coming out in a very public way in the media today with a-
STEPHEN SMITH: ?I think any spouse whether it's a wife or husband is entitled publicly or privately to support the work that her husband or his wife does. So it's you know perfectly appropriate, Mrs Abbott is perfectly entitled to give as much public or private support to Mr Abbott as she wants.
It's entirely a matter for her. And I'm sure a range of people in the Australian community would say good on her.
So she's perfectly entitled to do that.
So far as Mr Abbott, the Liberal Party, the next election is concerned, the Australian public will make their judgements about the personalities and policies involved.
I've been saying for some time that my own judgment has always been that this Parliament would go effectively full term, that we'd have our next election in September/October/November of next year.
And when that election comes it'll be a genuine competition. And recently I think people, commentators, analysts are saying this looks like we're going to have a competition.
I don't want to say I told you so but I have been saying that for some time. I think when we get to the election itself it'll be a robust competition between Prime Minister Gillard and Mr Abbott and a robust competition between Labor and the Coalition.
And I wouldn't be placing bets at this stage. Because it will be a genuine competition.
JOURNALIST:? Minister, Michael Danby has come out and said that backbenchers are a bit worried about the Defence cuts. Do you acknowledge that there is some concern within the government ranks about the cuts?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well when I sat down with my colleagues, none of us like withdrawing funds or reducing allocations to agencies or departments.
But we came to a very strong view that it was important that the Budget go into surplus, the general economic terms, reasons - a strong economy helps defence, just as it helps the Australian community. So we're taking funds out of Defence in the current Budget.
We're no orphans or strangers in that respect. Ambassador Bleich's, the Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, he currently has the task of taking half a trillion dollars out of the US Defense Budget over the next 10 years. And that's before congress requires him potentially to do more.
My United Kingdom colleague is grappling with comparable issues.
So the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which the 2009 White Paper signalled as the single biggest economic challenge we have, and biggest fiscal challenge we have, continues to bedevil us.
We're in a tight fiscal situation. But we have ensured that as we withdraw those funds from Defence that we protect our core capability and also put ourselves in the position of being able to acquire more capability.
The doomsayers who say that, you know, Defence is at an end don't appreciate that despite our tough financial circumstances we've acquired Growler. Since the Budget I've announced the acquisition of a fleet of C-27s, tactical military airlift. Over 200 additional Bushmasters.
At the same time we have protected our overseas operations. We've protected our military numbers. So yeah. We're going through a tough time. I've seen a lot of speculation of people saying there are more Defence cuts on the way, and I make two points.
Firstly, recently, the Finance Minister announced some further efficiency dividends, some further tightening. Defence was excluded from that as a result of the contribution we'd made in the recent budget. And I've also indicated that and I'm not proposing to get into the rule in rule out game. If people want to know what's going to occur in MYEFO, the mid-year financial estimates, or in the next Budget, turn up on the day. Or turn up on the night.
So no-one in the Cabinet or the Labor Party wants to see reductions in expenditure, whether it's in Defence or other crucial areas. But we are living in tough and difficult times. And the most important thing we can do economically - to continue to see growth in the economy, to continue to see the creation of jobs is by bringing the Budget back to surplus.
And that's in the context of frankly the most successful economy in the world in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
JOURNALIST:?Do you think that the public worries about Defence cuts and that might affect the Government's chances at retaining marginal seats?
STEPHEN SMITH:? I think the public, when they come to make judgements about federal elections or national elections, hold two things uppermost in mind: one, economic security and how the economy's going and how the economy's going for them. And secondly, national security.
So at the election, the people make a judgement about those two fundamentals. Over the years we've seen defence expenditure expand and contract. It is, like other areas, cyclical in nature. It's important that we do everything we can to plan for the long-term, and that's why we talk about things like White Papers and Defence Capability Plans and Defence Capability Guides.
But funding cyclical. The important thing to do is make sure you get your priorities right with the available funding, and that's why we have protected our overseas operations, whether it's Afghanistan, Solomon Islands or East Timor. We've protected our equipment to those people who are being deployed. We're protecting our core capability - our core capability continues to work through the system, and we are protecting our military numbers; we're not reducing our military numbers.
So I think the community makes a judgement about economic circumstances, but also what priorities governments choose, whether it's in defence or elsewhere. And the defence system continues to be administered in a way where core capability such as Growler can continue to be acquired.
JOURNALIST:? With the Growlers operating here, how much of their electronic kit will you be using - or will the squadron be using when they're working with our Super Hornets?
STEPHEN SMITH: ?Well in the end we will have the capacity - the potential to put six Growlers in the air at any given time. And the Growler capability is not a capability that you want to turn on and off when you're flying in or around Brisbane, or Australia generally, which is why in my earlier remarks I spoke about the training we'll do here and the simulation we'll do here.
But by the time we get to our initial operating capability, which we expect to be about 2018, we'll be in a position to utilise the full extent of Growler, aided by the expertise from our US Navy colleagues. Geoff, you can add to that if you want to.
JOURNALIST: ?I wanted to ask the Chief about his remarks about how important this is. What specifically do you see as the most important aspects of having this aircraft type in the fleet?
GEOFF BROWN:? Well it's wider than air combat capability, and it's really useful across the full spectrum of operations. If you need to do any operation in the future, one of the things you've actually got to be able to do is dominate the electro-magnetic spectrum. So if you can shut down electronic devices, you've got a lot of flexibility with your operations and you actually reduce risk to the operation, whether it's in the air, sea or land. So I see it as a whole of ADF capability rather than just an air force capability.
JOURNALIST:? Chief, by the time this actually is fitted and flying, we'll be well and truly out of Afghanistan if that timetable sticks [indistinct]. Will you allow our pilots to potentially do exchanges with the US now to actually use it and fly in a US or Afghanistan air space to use it in a real time environment?
GEOFF BROWN:? We actually do a lot of exchanges with the US Navy and the US Air Force. Right now I've got one pilot on exchange [indistinct] F-22s. Our relationship with the US is absolutely critical to maintaining a leading-edge capability. And through a lot of those exchange positions we kept up-to-date with the latest US tactics.
JOURNALIST: ?Minister, a social impact study in Darwin into the presence of troops says there's a moderate risk of sexual assault. What is that? How do you define that?
STEPHEN SMITH:? I think what you're referring to is that yesterday, Warren Snowdon and I released the social and economic impact study over the presence of the first batch of US Marines rotating on a six month basis out of Darwin. Last week we saw the finish of that first rotation - it was very successful. And in the course of that the Marines did exercises and training with us, did unilateral exercises and training, and also did some exercises and training in - from memory - Malaysia and Thailand. So it was a very successful six months.
We're planning next year to have the same number of Marines, so 200 to 250. We released the impact study yesterday, which essentially said there's a net economic benefit to Darwin and surrounds of about - between $1.8 and $2.2 million, so that makes sense because you have more people in Darwin spending money.
When you have a group of individuals associated, whether it's in Darwin or elsewhere in Australia, there are always risks. What the report says yesterday is that the behaviour that we've seen from the first batch of Marines has been exemplary, as one would expect. And I can remember when they arrived, the Ambassador, and Dwayne Tyson who was then their Commanding Officer telling them in no uncertain times that their behaviour had to be exemplary. And we're satisfied that it is.
We've also indicated that the next study we'll do will be looking at the potential impact of up to 1,100 Marines in Darwin and surrounds, and we'll do that in due course as the Prime Minister and the President announced in November of last year, on a stage basis, and we'll make these decisions about numbers as we go, but on stage basis, we're looking over the next five or six years to end up with a Marine task group which will be about 2,500, but we'll make those decisions and judgements as we go, and we'll do the various social and economic studies as required.
JOURNALIST:? So what is moderate risk then?
STEPHEN SMITH:? It's the same risk you have in Australian society when you wander around any population centre. And the Marines know that when they come to Australia, they are bound to uphold the traditions of the Marines, both in terms of their on-field conduct and their off-field conduct. And the assessment makes it clear their off-field conduct has been exemplary, and that's obviously a very good thing.
JOURNALIST: ?Have you got an update on the DLA Piper abuse claims and what's being done to deal with concerns that the abusers are still employed in the Defence Force?
STEPHEN SMITH:? As I've said on a number of occasions recently, we're not too far away from making final decisions about that matter. And when I'm in a position to make announcements I will.
JOURNALIST:? Minister, the classic Hornets are pretty long in the tooth now. And while Super Hornet and the Growler will fill certain capability, are there any plans to get through to when you expect F-35 to come along?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well currently we've got 71 classics, and we've got the 24 Super Hornets. We're of course in the Join Strike Fighter program will receive two of the Joint Strike Fighters in the next couple of years for training purposes in the United States. As part of the Budget, we put ourselves on the same timetable as the United States for the arrival of the next 12 Joint Strike Fighters, so that's 2016-17.
One of the points I've made very strongly for the last 12 months or so has been that as the classics become older in the tooth, as the Super Hornets get into the sky and as the Joint Strike Fighter emerges, we need to ensure that we don't have a gap in capability.
We'll be making a decision about our air combat capability and transition plan in the course of this year, and that'll give a good indication as to where we see the classic's end of life, and whether there's a risk of any gap of capability between now and the arrival of the Joint Strike Fighters.
The classics have been undergoing an intensive maintenance program, and that's been very successful. And so currently we see the classics as being ready and available and good for use for a decade into the future. But we'll formally make these decisions in the course of this year.
JOURNALIST:? Are you considering more Super Hornets?
STEPHEN SMITH:? I've said that if we're worried about a gap in capability because of delays in the Joint Strike Fighter, then we have to look at other options. I haven't committed us to that or to any option, but as I've said previously, Super Hornets in an obvious option, and I can tell from people's eyes around me that they want me to pretty quickly get on a plane otherwise I'll disappoint the Premier of South Australia.
So unless someone's got something which is absolutely urgent I think we're off.
JOURNALIST:? Yes, because I understand that Bob Carr's office has said you're speaking on all Foreign Affair matters as it were today.
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well I can't imagine that Bob Carr's office would have said that. I'm not the Foreign Minister, so any-
JOURNALIST:? I know, but-
STEPHEN SMITH:? -Foreign Minister questions you have should be addressed to the Foreign Minister.
JOURNALIST:? Well these are about the Italian girls, and why did Australian consular officials provide assistance to the mother when it was clear that she wouldn't be returning to Italy?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well first of all, a couple of things. Firstly, I'm not the Foreign Minister, so that's a matter for the Foreign Minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. That's the first point.
Secondly, I've read today's Courier Mail as you would expect, and I thought the most important point in today’s Courier Mail was the reference to a judge of the Family Court recently saying that there was no evidence that any Australian official had knowingly done anything inappropriate, wrong or improper. And I think that's a very sound reference point. Any more detail, you need to go and see the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the department.
JOURNALIST:? Their office did refer the ABC back to your office today-
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well firstly-
JOURNALIST:? Your office might be not - you may not be aware of this, this is just what our-
STEPHEN SMITH: ?I'll tell you what I'm very strongly aware of. Firstly, I'm very strongly aware that I'm aware that I'm the Defence Minister; that matters about Foreign Affairs should be directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his department. I've seen the story in today's Courier Mail, and all of Australia has seen very distressing circumstances for a family and children - very distressing circumstances. So our hearts go out to that family and to all members of that family because this has been a very difficult and distressing event over a long period of time for a family.
So that I think is the starting point.
Secondly, I think the most important point that's been made today publicly, and I repeat it, is not a departmental official, not a minister, but a judge of the Family Court who has dealt with all of the detail and all of the evidence of this matter, saying that there is no evidence that any Australian official did anything which was wrong or inappropriate.