TRANSCRIPT: QUESTION AND ANSWER – SPEECH TO ASPI
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 21 JULY 2011
STEPHEN SMITH: Well thanks very much for that question. I've focused tonight, as I have in the bulk of the time since I became Minister, on our challenges and the issues that we need to address to have the entire defence organisation operating more effectively and more efficiently and delivering value for money on taxpayers’ funds.
That is not an object in itself. The object is to discharge as effectively as we can our national security obligations to protect and defend the national security interests of the Commonwealth. The regrettable truth is we can do much better, and yes, whilst from time to time there is a focus on difficulties in defence, I frankly think that there has been an attitude in the past which has been that whenever we see a defence capability project go pear shaped or a waste of money that could have been avoided, there's a shrugging the shoulders and an approach which says, well these things have always happened, why should we change now?
We have to change now because we face the same challenges that comparable countries face, whether it's the United States, whether it's United Kingdom, whether it's Canada, whether it's New Zealand or other countries. And for different reasons we are now all facing the same challenge.
We presented the challenge for ourselves squarely by putting external rigour around procurement and capability and sustainment and budget through the 2009 White Paper. Our challenge now, and we did that through adoption of the strategic reform program and the budget rules, what we have to do now is to make sure that our internal rigour is sufficient to match those external parameters. And if we fail in this task, then the end, we fail to deliver to the Australian Defence Force, the capability and the effectiveness it needs to protect and defend out national security interests, whether that is in an operation in Afghanistan, a stabilisation mission in the Solomon Islands or East Timor, part of a peacekeeping mission through United Nations peacekeeping force, or the delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief for which we have heavy accepted responsibilities in our own region. And that's before we come to the notion of our responsibility for ensuring peace and security in our part of the world.
That's why I focused on these issues since I became Minister. That's why I focused on them tonight, because we can and have to do better.
QUESTION: Minister, thanks for your address. You began by making reference to the overseas operations. Our most significant deployment, of course is in Afghanistan. How would you characterise the military affairs, the political affairs in Afghanistan at the moment? And what do you say about the future course, therefore our commitment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's been a significant week in Afghanistan. We've seen on the one hand the transfer of responsibility for Commander ISAF from General Petraeus to General John Allen whom I met in Brussels recently. General Petraeus, of course to become Director of the CIA, replacing Leon Panetta.
We've also seen two terrible, high profile assassinations; President Karzai's half brother and Mohammad Jan Kahn, the former Governor of Uruzgan. We are seeing what I predicted before the summer fighting season started.
Two things: we're seeing the Taliban fight back and we're seeing the utilisation, not just of fighting back on the ground, but of fighting back by using high profile attacks which they know will have effectively a propaganda effect which are done to sap political will and to undermine confidence.
We, of course, condemn those terrible events in recent days. But putting it bluntly, it's come as no surprise.
We very strongly believe, and this view is shared by our International Security Assistance Force colleagues that we have made substantial progress in the last 18 months to two years. I've often been heard to say that Australia is the 10th largest contributor in Afghanistan, and more recently, I've been making the point we are the 3rd largest contributor of Special Forces. And it has been the effectiveness of Special Forces operations which has seen enormous pressure now go onto the Taliban.
That's been best reflected, in my view, by the early signs of outreach for political discussions. Australia has very strongly argued in the last two or three years that our mission in Afghanistan, which is to transition authority to Afghan led security responsibility that our mission can't be achieved by military means alone, it also has to be complemented - military strategy has to be complemented by political strategy.
And the fact that there is now pressure on the Taliban, in my view, is best evidenced by that development, although I very strongly agree with former US Secretary of Defence Gates that we are very much at the outreach or early stages of that.
But at some point in the cycle there needs to be political rapprochement for political - a political settlement. More generally, I've made the point that the biggest of Special Forces operations, which has seen enormous pressure now go on to the Taliban
That's been best reflected, by the early signs of outreach for political discussions.
Australia has very strongly argued, in the last two or three years, that our mission in Afghanistan, which is to transition authority to Afghan-led security responsibility, that our mission can't be achieved by military means alone. It also has to be complemented - the military strategy has to be complemented by a political strategy.
The fact that there is now pressure on the Taliban, in my view, is best evidenced by that development, although I very strongly agree with former US Secretary of Defence Gates that we are very much at the outreach, or the early stages of that. But at some point in the cycle there needs to be a political rapprochement, a political settlement.
More generally, I've made the point that the biggest contributing factor to the undermining of political will in countries like Australia, the United States and in Europe is the fact that we've been there for a very long time. The Iraq distraction did not help. And it's only been in the last two years where the international community, led initially by the Riedel review, and subsequently by the Obama review, that we have a coherent military and political strategy with the resources on the ground and the personnel on the ground to deliver that.
The great regrettable fact is that when people write the history of this period they'll regard that effort as coming five or six years too late so far as the international community is concerned.
The fact that there remains political will, in my view, is absolutely underpinned by the fact that we are there not just with our United States alliance partner, we're there under a United Nations mandate which has been repeatedly renewed for almost a decade. And it's the United Nations' authority which helps buttress us in that respect.
And I think you can look at the period, rule of thumb from 2002 to 2008, and regard that very much as lost years or a lost opportunity. It's really been in the last two to three years where the international community has come to grips with a coherent military and political strategy, and put the resources in to match it.
And I continue to share the view that my Defence ministerial colleagues from NATO and ISAF clearly share, which is we believe we've made substantial progress. We believe we can effect the transition to Afghan-led security in 2014. And we also believe that reflected most importantly by the long-term United States-Afghanistan partnership agreement that we'll also be there in some manner or form after transition. That may be over-watch, it may be training, it will certainly be ongoing assistance so far as capacity building and development assistance is concerned.
For reasons [indistinct] the government has increasing emphasis on military off the shelf solutions [indistinct], if I might say so [indistinct]. I understand that with regard to [indistinct]. [Indistinct]. And yet successive governments in a bipartisan way for the last 25 years have emphasised a clear [indistinct] technological advantage [indistinct]. Can you tell us how the two are going to work. I know it's not impossible [indistinct].
And if I might, an associated question, with regard to the Defence planning guidance, do you envisage anything more closely linked with regard to the priority industry capabilities in such crucial areas for our unique strategic environment [indistinct], and the strategic planning guidance.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a range of questions there. Firstly, let me acknowledge that, not on this occasion but previously I think, Paul, I've said the last time we had a serious force posture review on our own count was in your work where at least one of the things you suggested was what we now describe as RAAF Base Scherger. So I acknowledge that, although I've also acknowledged that my predecessor, Robert Hill, might quibble with whether he didn't do a force posture review as well. That's a digression from the answer to your question.
Firstly, let me deal with the off the shelf. Defence capability in Australia and everywhere else has always been a combination of off the shelf and new developments. And we are very well served by the great Defence science and research capacity that we have, not just in DSTO but generally in the Australian industrial community. And that has seen a range of very important developments which holds us in very good strategic and security order in our own region, but which has also been of assistance to our alliance partner, and others, over the years. So it will continue to be a combination.
Where you find something like the C-17 where we now have four, coming on five, we'll be the third largest owner of the C-17s when that occurs, following the US and the United Kingdom. It works very well for us. Where you have a proven off the shelf capability which works for our large land mass country and regional obligations, it's a sensible thing to do. That's not to say that we can't or won't have other developments, developments of our own. And the less off the shelf and the more developments you have, the higher the risk is and the more you have to be assiduous about managing it. And I've made that point, very squarely I think, with respect to our future submarine program.
So far as the Defence planning guidance is concerned, to me it's a very important feature that we have inbuilt into our strategic and security considerations. Quite sensibly we, inverted commas, didn't have one for 2010 because we were less than - essentially, less than 12 months out from the white paper. So the strategic guidance, or the planning guidance work that we're doing on this occasion is the first inbuilt review work that we're doing following on from the 2009 white paper. So I regard that as an essential piece of work.
And the capability and the factors that you've referred to, I think, have to be part of that consideration, have to be part of our ongoing strategic and security thought processes.