Speers: Let’s return to what’s happening here in Canberra. Alongside all the to and fro on the leadership this week, there’s been some pretty serious developments in terms of our operation to degrade and defeat Islamic State or Daesh. We have had confirmation today of Australia’s first bombing raids in Syria and to tell us more about it the Assistant Defence Minister Stuart Robert is with me now. Thank you for your time Minister.
Speers: So what can you tell us about this particular, this first strike in Syria?
Robert: Well as you know, once authority was given by the National Security Committee of Cabinet we then became a part of the coalition air picture in Syria. We flew a number of missions without success but on the 14th of September there were three strikes by all of coalition air. One of those was a number of Australian Hornets with a Joint Direct Attack Munition, which is a smart bomb if you will, attack against an armoured personnel carrier on the ground.
Speers: So two Australian Hornets involved is that right, as part of the how many?
Robert: Well a number of coalition air, there’s eight nations of course flying coalition air within the Syria boundary; five Islamic nations, Canada, the United States and Australia. Our aircrafts are always in pairs at a minium so you will always see two Hornets together. A dynamic target was spotted, which was an armoured personnel carrier, hiding, captured. Clearance was received from the CAOC, the Coalition Air Operations Centre, and a smart bomb was targeted against it. A very precise munition, a munition that will hit within a foot or so. So no civilian collateral damage at all and target destroyed.
Speers: Target destroyed. Do we know how many fighters were killed as part of that?
Robert: No, no indication at all in that space. Simply, a vehicle that was in ISIS hands and a vehicle that could be used in attack against Coalition forces.
Speers: What’s the follow up after an attack like that to confirm exactly what has happened, what the impact has been?
Robert: Every strike from a munition is always covered by photography as well. In some cases, depending on the type of munition you’re using, it might be a camera on the nose of the bomb itself or it might be from a UAV or from a pod on the aircraft. You always do a battle damage assessment at the very end, so a picture of the target before and a picture of the target after the strike has occurred and that way you can 100 per cent ascertain whether the target’s down.
Speers: Sorry to get technical but I know that you know these answers. The camera on the bomb itself is that seen in real time by someone back in the UAE or someone even back here in Australia? The feed from that?
Robert: It could be, but most of the time no, you actually see the footage afterwards. If you think back to the Gulf War in 1991 when Schwarzkopf gave the world the first camera shots. Remember that truck going across the bridge and everyone could see the bomb? Well it was that sort of technology starting to evolve. But rather than the camera on the aircraft, it’s on the nose of the bomb itself to ensure a direct attack and a direct hit. Others use GPS, others use lasing from special forces on the ground. There’s a range of different types of munitions.
Speers: And how often can we expect this to happen? This is the first, and it’s come, well it was two days ago, so in that first week since the clearance was given by the National Security Committee. So how often do you expect we’ll see this sort of news?
Robert: Not a lot. Keeping in mind this is about flexibility. The NSC hasn’t authorised some mass bombing campaign in Syria. This is about providing flexibility for Australian air assets to be used right across the theatre against Daesh targets. So again seven nations dropping, or prosecuting targets from the air in Iraq, eight nations in Syria, with maximum flexibility. This is about Australia’s Hornets operating in northern Iraq, and a dynamic target pops up in Syria and it gives the Coalition Air Centre flexibility to send our assets across the border and to attack that target. When before there may not have been any other assets available and the target might have got away.
Speers: And are you able to say how far across the border this particular strike was?
Robert: I’m not aware how far it was but it wasn’t a long way. Because we are just operating on the border areas and around the Raqqa area and we are not going anywhere near where the Assad forces are. This is not an assault on the Assad forces, on the particular regime, this is about prosecuting Daesh and Daesh only and they are operating within that border space and through to Raqqa. It’s about lines of communication, lines of supply, heavy weapons, their concentration of troops. It’s very specific. It’s about flexibility. So I’d be seeing regular weapons being used on targets in Syria and Iraq but this is not some outright bombing campaign. It’s about flexibility on the ground.
Speers: Now let me turn to the political events of this week here in Canberra. You voted for Malcolm Turnbull in Monday’s ballot.
Robert: I did.
Speers: What were you hoping the new Prime Minister will actually deliver? What sort of change do you think he’ll bring to the government?
Robert: One of the key things we require is a very strong focus on the economy, on jobs, on productivity, on growth and I said to my Gold Coast community today in our local newspaper, this is about bread and butter issues for the average punter. Talking about issues that they’re interested in. And that’s where we hope the new team will bring a very strong focus to.
Speers: It seems that a fair bit of support for him came out of Queensland. Is that a fair assessment?
Robert: I think that is a reasonable assessment, yes.
Speers: What would you put that down to?
Robert: Well we’ve seen the destruction of a first term Liberal National Party Government in Queensland led by Campbell Newman. A government that was struggling to get its message across; that had the biggest win in Westminster history three years ago then had the biggest loss in Westminster history. We were all patently aware of that. We were there during that. We are not going to let that happen to this government. We are not going to allow Bill Shorten to wreak havoc upon the Australian people as we saw under the six years of Rudd and Gillard and Rudd again. That would account for a lot of Queensland’s concerns.
Speers: And from what you’ve seen from the last two days are you heartened by the change?
Robert: Well we’ve seen a strong sense of stability. We’ve seen a lot of honouring to the outgoing Prime Minister, Prime Minister Abbott, who has been, I think, magnanimous in defeat which I think is extraordinary and which speaks volumes of the man himself. We’ve seen a very calm, considered, succinct approach to government. We’ve seen a very good prosecution of the economic argument and I think that is what Australia will see more and more of.
Speers: Do you think your colleagues are united right now?
Robert: All of these things create difficulty. There’s no question about that. And there’s a fair bit of healing to go. That’s going to take time. Time heals all wounds. As I said to the British Ambassador yesterday, the High Commissioner, when she laid a floral tribute with the German Defence Attaché for the Battle of Britain, healing takes time. Now it won’t take that long. But it certainly will take time.
Speers: Well the first main order of business will be the reshuffle of the frontbench. Do you think that’s going to be an opportunity for healing or risk of creating more wounds?
Robert: Oh it’s simply a factor of you need sound ministers who are competent in their particular spaces and the Prime Minister will announce that on the weekend and everyone will get on with the business of government. That will be part of a journey and there will be other building blocks in the wall of healing. It just takes some time.
Speers: What are you expecting for your own part?
Robert: Well whatever the Prime Minister asks I will serve in whatever portfolio he asks me to do or serve in no portfolio. These things are the gift of the Prime Minister. He’ll build a team that matches the strengths of his people. He will build a very strong team that of course goes right across the country and gives every state ownership of it. So wherever I am asked to serve, I will serve very willingly and very thankfully.
Speers: Given your background, it would seem to me that you would be keen to stay in some sort of Defence role.
Robert: Again it’s not what I’m keen about. It’s what the Prime Minister thinks will fit into various square pegs or round holes, so we’ll leave it up to him.
Speers: And just let me come back to the operation in Iraq and now Syria as well. No doubt the Prime Minister has been receiving briefings over the last 48 hours about all of this. Do we have the right strategy there at the moment, do you think?
Robert: The campaign plan is sound. Remember Daesh reached out to us before we commenced operations with the coalition in the Middle East. They reached out here because of our way of life, because of our pluralist multicultural society. So the destruction of Daesh is in our national interest; there is no question about that. Canada has also joined the fight, clearly the US is leading, the Netherlands are in the fight, the Danes are in the fight, numerous Islamic nations are in the fight…
Speers: But you’ve got to have the right strategy to actually, I mean it’s great to have those allies in there but is the strategy the right one? I mean, and you know this, it can’t just be won from the air can it?
Robert: No it can’t be. This needs Iraq to actually assemble their ground forces and to push Daesh out. Hence our building partner capacity which is training the Iraqi forces out of our base there in Taji. About getting the Iraqis moving. Our training of the counter terrorism service, which is their specialist counter terrorist special forces if you will. We provide an air cover and take targets out from the air to allow Iraqi forces to move on the ground…
Speers: How do you do it in Syria? In particular, I know you’re not going to give away operational details about this particular strike that Australia has now been involved in. How do you actually find that target?
Robert: Well the first campaign plan is to push Daesh out of Iraq. The particular target we actually found from the air was a dynamic target, which means it was spotted from the air, it wasn’t a deliberate target. It was then ensured that it was indeed a Daesh footprint on the ground. There was permission sought from the new operations…
Speers: Was someone on the ground to confirm that?
Robert: No, it was confirmed from the air. Remember you’ve got a…
Speers: How do you confirm that from the air? That it’s not someone other than Daesh. That it’s not a Syrian Assad regime APC?
Robert: Well as you’ve seen from the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade with the use of specialist cameras and UAVs, the resolution is impressive. And you match that with the location…
Speers: What do you see? A black flag or something? I mean is it that good?
Robert: I haven’t actually seen the picture of this particular target. But in terms of getting permission dynamically, they would’ve beyond any reasonable doubt, in fact at 100 per cent they would have confirmed this is a terrorist target. They are very precise when it comes to targeting.
Speers: Stuart Robert the Assistant Defence Minister thank you very much for joining us this afternoon.
Robert: Pleasure, any time.