TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH SABRA LANE, THE WORLD TODAY
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 19 September 2012
TOPICS: ISAF partnered operations directive; Secretary Appointments; Defence spending; Army cadets
ELEANOR HALL: Australia's Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, says he wasn't consulted about the NATO decision but wasn't as surprised as other allies. He says it was a response to both to the increase in insider attacks, and to the instability caused by the anti-Muslim video which has triggered waves of protests around the globe.
The Defence Minister spoke a short time ago to our chief political correspondent, Sabra Lane.
SABRA LANE: NATO led forces have suspended joint operations with the Afghan army over these insider attacks. How does it affect Australia's troops?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not a complete suspension; it is a suspension of partner operations below Kandak or battalion level, about 500 or 600 men in a Kandak or a battalion. What General Allen has done is issue a directive over the last 48 hours to essentially say partnered operations need to be reviewed below Kandak or battalion level, need to be reviewed as a result of issues arising from insider incidents and also sensitivity about the so-called Muslims in Innocence video. So he's said to his regional commanders, and there's a half dozen of those, no partnered operations below Kandak level unless they're approved by you. In Australia's case, that's Regional Command South.
SABRA LANE: Ok. So it affects our troops. How many of our troops will that impact on?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it affects our people in Uruzgan in the following way. Uruzgan's a province in the NATO/ISAF Regional Command South. General Abrams is the commander of Regional Command South. He has issued a directive which says no below Kandak level partnered operations without my approval. So what's occurred over the last couple of days, we haven't been doing any joint, or partnered, patrols. We've continued to work with our Afghan colleagues in Uruzgan province at our forward operating bases. But we haven't been doing partnered patrols. What we're doing today is to go through with the Kandak or battalion commanders and leaders their patrol plan for this week, and also in discussions with them about making an approach to General Abrams for approval for those joint patrols to resume in the normal way. Now I'm not proposing to put a timetable on that but that's where we are today. The joint patrols have ceased over the last 48 hours. We're following the ISAF directive from General Allen, and the requirement to get permission from the regional commander in the south.
SABRA LANE: Britain's Defence Secretary has admitted that they were caught unawares about this. Were we caught unawares?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think we were less surprised than others. I'm not asserting we were consulted before the decision, this is essentially a decision or directive made by the commanding officer. But we have been, through General Allen and also my own discussions, in very close contact with General Allen over the so-called 'green on blue' or insider incidents as, since the first one occurred to us over 12 months ago.
And of course, we've seen the terrible murder of three of our soldiers in recent times in this way. So General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force, has been working very closely with General Allen. We have improved a range of our force protection measures and a lot of what we'd learnt, we actually put into the International Security Assistance Force system. So we weren't consulted or asked for approval. We got the directive. What we then had to do was to work closely with the relevant regional commander, General Abrams, to work through the details and that's what we've been doing assiduously over the last couple of days.
SABRA LANE: What's the public to make of Duncan Lewis, the Secretary of Defence, now moving on over after only a year in the job?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well these recent events, and you've seen the Secretary-General of NATO out there in the last 24 hours, just underlined in the Government's mind how important the Brussels post now is. The Brussels post has gone effectively from a trade post to a national security post. The Prime Minister and I wanted someone in Brussels who could make sure that the key issues of transition continued to be very closely monitored, understood, and our input was made. So he'll be a very good appointment there and his replacement, Mr Richardson, will be very good a Secretary of Defence. And Mr Richardson's replacement, the High Commissioner in India, will also be very good. So from our perspective, it's essentially an allocation of senior people in the national security space, doing different, but nonetheless very important, jobs.
SABRA LANE: Given the $5 billion that was cut from Defence in this year's budget and the extra savings, it apparently being looked for now in the mid-year economic update. Was the former special forces commander perhaps not up to the task of finding those savings- and then it's Dennis Richardson, a man who reputedly takes no nonsense, he's the man who is?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well absolutely not. And Duncan has put out to ADF personnel and to members of the Defence organisation, his view which is a more reliable view than reporting I've seen, which is the Prime Minister asking him to do an important job. And I've also seen people out there speculating about further budget cuts or budget arrangements. People should simply patiently wait until MYEFO is published by the Treasurer. Yes, we're going through a tough financial time so far as Defence is concerned. But we are no orphans. The United States, the United Kingdom, comparable colleagues, comparable countries, are all going through the same difficulties.
SABRA LANE: And they've made dramatic cutbacks to their various defence budgets.
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely.
SABRA LANE: And Australia's looking to build 12 new submarines and we're still saying that we're going to buy 100 Joint Strike Fighters. Are we still committed to those very big spending programs?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in terms of our budget, I've made it clear that we're not going to allow our fiscal restraint to adversely impact on our overseas operations or the forces we deploy, particularly to Afghanistan, that we want to ensure that our core capability continues to go through the system, and that includes our 12 submarines. It also includes our commitment to Joint Strike Fighters. But one of the decisions in the Budget was to move our decision-making on Joint Strike Fighters onto the same timetable as Secretary Panetta had put the United States. That saved us nearly a $1.5 billion. So people should also understand what's occurred so far as the Budget's concerned. And since the Budget, yes we've got our challenges. Yes it does require some tough decisions. But we are ring-fencing military numbers, core capability from the adverse impacts of what is a tight fiscal cycle for us.
SABRA LANE: There are reports this morning that you're going to cut funding to the Australian Army cadets, is that right?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well what's occurring under the army cadet system, those people who are either volunteers or assist, whether it's a school principals, ADF (Australian Defence Force) reservists or people with former ADF experience who do the training for cadets, they're entitled to claim a maximum of 48 days allowance per year. Some people claim the maximum, some people don't claim at all. We're reducing that amount from 48 to 33. That's a saving, a tough saving, that the Chief of Army has instituted. But no cadet unit is going to be abolished. No cadet program is going to be abolished. We're simply reducing the entitlement to those people who help out. And very many people help out and they don't claim the allowance.