TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP, RAAF AMBERLEY
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 22 NOVEMBER 2012
TOPICS: Arrival of sixth C-17; Afghanistan transition; East Timor; HMAS Choules; MRH-90; Tiger; Royal Commission into child abuse.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well thanks very much for turning up. We're very pleased to be at RAAF Amberley. It's a great day for Amberley, it's a great day for the Air Force, and it's a great day for the Australian Defence Force, as we receive our sixth C-17 heavy lift aircraft. Over the last two years the Government has effectively doubled the size of our available heavy-lift fleet. The original plan was to purchase four heavy lift C-17s, and over the last two years we've added to that with two additional C-17s.
That effectively enables us as you see today to have four aircraft available. We've got four aircraft available, and they show you what the C-17 can do. The Chief of Air Force and I have just inspected the latest C-17 which has medical assist and medical evacuation facilities. The other three aircraft have got Tiger Helicopters, Bushmasters and an Abrams tank onboard. That shows you the capability and the capacity.
And we've seen from this base over the last couple of years, the work that can be done on Australia's behalf and in Australia's name for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, whether that's in our own backyard - in Queensland or other parts of the country adversely affected by floods or cyclones- or whether it's Christchurch for earthquakes or Japan for Tsunamis. And so it's a very important part of our capability so far as humanitarian assistance is concerned. It's also obviously a very important part of our security capability - one of the C-17s as we speak is in the Middle East assisting on our Afghanistan mission, and we've also seen the C-17s assist whether it's in East Timor or Afghanistan, or the Solomon Islands.
Today's also an important day, because today we see two of our important operations, our overseas operations reach a turning point. We've been in East Timor for about a decade as part of an international stabilisation force. And today our security work in East Timor finishes. We'll see the draw-down of our nearly 400 troops from East Timor between now and the end of the year. We'll leave a small contingent behind to start the work of a bilateral defence program with East Timor. And we've done this in conjunction with United Nations, with New Zealand our partner in the stabilisation force, and of course with the Government of East Timor. So we see a draw-down of a successful stabilisation mission.
Secondly, in Afghanistan, over the last couple of days we've seen the form transition in Afghanistan of our forward operating bases and our operating bases to the four infantry kandaks of the fourth brigade of the Afghan National Army. When I went to the NATO International Security Assistance Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels in October, I made the point that in October, one of the four infantry kandaks had been accorded the status of capacity to operate independently, and there was an expectation that by the end of the year - the end of this year, the other three kandaks would be in the same state and status. In the course of the last couple of days, the fourth of those infantry kandaks has been accorded independent capacity, and we now see all four kandaks of the Afghan National Army now operating independently in Uruzgan Province. And as a consequence, Australian forces have changed their mission from mentoring at the kandak level, to advice at the leadership level. And our forces are now in the main base - multi-national base at Tarin Kot.
We of course remain ready - combat ready if required, and our Special Forces continue to do partnered operations with Afghan forces in Uruzgan Province and surrounding provinces, but a very important of the transition process in Uruzgan province itself. Finally, can I just mention that in the course of the morning, the Chief of Navy has indicated that he's made a decision to take the opportunity of replacing all of HMAS Choules' transformers at a cost of about $10 million. This will see Choules laid-up effectively until April. You might recall that in the last couple of months, Choules suffered from a serious transformer error. As a result of the investigative work that's been done, it's quite clear that there are electrical problems with that transformer.
As a result of the work that the Defence Materiel Organisation has done - the Chief of Navy has done in consultation with the manufacturer and partners overseas, the decision's been made by the Chief of Navy to replace all four of the HMAS Choules transformers, and that will see Choules laid-up until about April. In the meantime, HMAS Tobruk and Ocean Protector will effect humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions on behalf of the Government during the forthcoming cyclone season. I'll throw to the Chief of Air Force to make some remarks about the C-17 and then we're happy to respond to your questions.
GEOFF BROWN: Thanks very much Minister. Look, I'd just like welcome everybody here today on what is really a great day for the Air Force. What we've tried to do today is actually just demonstrate the flexibility of this great aeroplane. What you see in the four aeroplanes that are here is a demonstration of some of the capability of the aeroplane. It's an incredibly flexible aircraft and certainly, as the Minister said, six aeroplanes actually guarantees us four on any particular day. Just at the moment we've got one in the Middle East. The other aeroplane's in its deeper level maintenance but I think you can just see how reliable these particular aircraft are for the ADF.
STEPHEN SMITH: All right, any questions?
JOURNALIST: Minister, regarding Choules, who will pick up the bill for the replacement there, the contractor or the taxpayer?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've said on a number of occasions that as we work through Choules's problems, we've done that in conjunction with the manufacturer of the transformer, but I've also made the point that the work needs to be done, the assessment needs to be done as to whether this is a particular problem for Choules or whether this is a fleet-wide or systemic problem. But the first thing we want to do is to work closely with the manufacturer and our other partners, to make sure that we make those replacements and get Choules back into the water as quickly as possible, and we'll worry about who might ultimately be responsible for the difficulty in due course.
JOURNALIST: Are you tempted to order a seventh C-17?
STEPHEN SMITH: As the Chief of Air Force said in his remarks, it's well known that I have a soft spot for the C-17. Apparently we've got, in terms of aircraft lift, we've got the configuration that we need. You might have noticed that our C-130 H fleet effectively retired. We had the celebrations last week, a few more celebrations going on this weekend. So originally our heavy lift was effected by C-130 Hs. We've now replaced the C-130 Hs with the C-130 Js. We've got a dozen of those. We've got six C-17 very heavy airlift and in budget week, back in May, I announced we were also proposing to purchase 10 C-27 military tactical airlift so we've got - we've got the lift fleet that we require. Whilst we'd always love to pick up some extra C-17s, currently we've got a sufficient number for our purposes, whether those purposes are humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping or combat and security work.
JOURNALIST: Just back to HMAS Choules, what reassurances can you provide to the people of north Queensland with cyclone season coming up that we'll have enough capacity to respond to the disaster relief?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've got, as our available ships for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, not just onshore but also in the region, we've got HMAS Tobruk and Ocean Protector available. We also work in close collaboration with New Zealand. I had last week the formal ANZAC- Australia and New Zealand Defence Ministers' meeting in Perth with New Zealand Defence Minister Coleman. We have good cooperation with New Zealand where effectively, if we need to, we share capability, but I've also asked the Chief of Navy to see whether any additional back-up might be required. In the past, from time to time, we've either leased on a short term basis some ships for additional back-up. I've asked for that work to be done. I don't expect it will be necessary but that work's being done to ensure that any back-up, if required, is available but we are confident that Tobruk, which has come out of a long period of maintenance, and Ocean Protector will provide the availability we need during the so-called cyclone season.
JOURNALIST: Minister, should Defence cadets come under the Royal Commission?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, with the Royal Commission the Attorney-General is working through the Terms of Reference of the Royal Commission with her consultative process, but the Royal Commission is a commission into allegations of sexual abuse against children. Cadets, of their nature, are children, so it is the case that if a cadet has got an allegation to make then that would potentially fall under the terms of the Royal Commission. The institution responsible might well be a school or it might be a Defence Force organisation or institution but, in a sense, that's hypothetical- but as the Royal Commission is into sexual assault or abuse of children, then, in a general sense, that qualifies.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the MRH-90 hasn't had a real good run- in the last couple of weeks in particular. Are you now getting increasingly frustrated and want this fixed?
STEPHEN SMITH: There's been frustration with that helicopter for a considerable period of time. It's a capability which we've been working very hard with the manufacturer to resolve the difficulties. Currently, of course, we use our Black Hawks, but whether it's that helicopter or whether it's the Tiger, there have been longstanding issues that we've been working through with the manufacturers and our partners. With the MRH-90, it's an issue that I've raised with my French Defence Ministerial colleague, given that the manufacturer and the producer is French-based, but we're working through those issues, but there's a high level of frustration for a long period of time over both of those projects.
JOURNALIST: But are you going to get to the point now where you say, you've had long enough to fix this, we need something reliable?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're working through those issues, and those issues have been worked through for a long period of time.
Alright, everyone happy? Okay. Good. Thanks.
JOURNALIST: May I ask the Air Marshal-
STEPHEN SMITH: Geoff, jump in.
JOURNALIST: What would you like the people that were on the ground across Brisbane and the Gold Coast today to think when they looked up and saw these aircraft?
GEOFF BROWN: Well, I think that they should take a great deal of pride in the Royal Australian Air Force and the ADF, and what we can actually do. I think these aeroplanes represent a very strategic capability for the nation. Not only can they respond inside the country to whatever disasters that we have but they have great capability to respond across the region to no matter what happens, and even globally.
JOURNALIST: Pretty good life-cycle out of them?
GEOFF BROWN: They're a great and reliable aeroplane. We've - well, today is just a perfect demonstration. Four out of four. And they regularly do that.
JOURNALIST: On a light-hearted note, it must be a fair bit of fun for your people to fly 300 metres above the ground over South Bank?
GEOFF BROWN: It's not something they normally do. But one of the things that's always a bit of a frustration I think, throughout the Australian Defence Force, is that the people of Australia don't see a lot of the things that we do. And I think sometimes when you can just take a chance like this to actually display the Defence Force, that's a great thing to do.
JOURNALIST: What did you think when you were here on the ground and four of them come over that low? It gets the rumble going, doesn't it?
GEOFF BROWN: Yeah, I'd always like to be flying of course.
No, but it was a great sight. They're a fantastic aeroplane.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can I ask you one last question about the MRH-90. Will you consider looking at the Black Hawks? I mean, just in the last week we've heard a lot of people start to say, you've got an ageing Black Hawk fleet, maybe you've got to go for a stopgap measure here and look at something in between.
STEPHEN SMITH: As I said, the issues with the Tiger and to a greater extent the MRH-90 are of longstanding, and we continue to work our way through those issues. In the meantime, the Black Hawk has served us very well and continues to serve us well.
JOURNALIST: Will you look at the new version?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're working our way through the problems and difficulties we've got with the MRH-90 and with the Tiger.
Okay? Thanks, cheers.