Related ministers and contacts
Senator the Hon David Johnston
Minister for Defence
25 March 2014
With Vice-Chief of the Defence Force Air Marshal Mark Binskin
What’s the message for families who are waiting with baited breath for any answer about where this debris is and what’s happened to the plane?
Well, the first thing we’ve tried to do is not give them false hope. We are looking, we are working hard, and we’ve flown over 40 sorties – that’s 11 or 12 people in a relatively small aircraft for up to 10 hours a day. We’re doing everything we can, it’s a combined effort with Japanese, Chinese, New Zealanders, United States, and this afternoon, the (South) Koreans arrive. This is a fabulous international effort. Australia has put four P3s (P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft) into the air on an almost permanent rotation. With respect to the families, all I can say is how tragic this whole mystery has been for them and the emotional roller coaster they have been on. I know my Prime Minister and myself are very, very concerned not to give false expectations. We are doing everything we can but the first thing we want to do is extract some wreckage – if there is any - from the surface of the ocean down there, two and a half thousand kilometres from Perth, and identify it as being part of the aircraft. That is the first threshold issue we are focused on.
How confident are you of the debris that has been spotted so far - (HMAS) Success had to move out of the area because of the horrendous weather as you described. How confident are you that when they move back in they’ll be able to locate it?
We’ve had to abandon operations for 24 hours at least because of the Sea State 7 down there. Now, mariners will know what a Sea State 7 means. Even the biggest of freighter vessels, the Panamax type would be very wary of going through Sea State 7. So, we have a ship down there. We’ve had to deploy it a 120 kilometres south to avoid this weather. We think we’ll be able to get back in there in a couple of days time. But, this is a part of the world where even estimating the weather is very, very difficult.
You are not comfortable enough to say you believe this is debris from the plane. You are just looking for that debris which was spotted?
All we are doing is responding as best we can until something positive come right up. We’ve got to get a boat into the water, hook up the debris depending on its size, get it on board and then we’ve got to get experts to tell us whether its part of an aircraft.
Now, I want to ask about that process. Let’s say Success finds debris and brings it onboard. Is it identified on the ship? I know it’s a huge ship but is it brought back to Perth? What is the process?
If we go back to the start. You get imagery from the satellite or even closer, you get eyes on it from a P3 or Chinese Iluyshin or whatever aircraft might be there at the time. The description of the objects is sent back to AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) back in Canberra. They’ll look at it and talk to airline experts saying: could this be part of an airliner? And through that, some of the debris they find they’ll discard. And others that they think are hopeful, they’ve marked and then they start to send the surface ship in and in this case its Success but in coming days there will be more ships in the area and in fact up until the last four or five days we’ve had a Norwegian freighter in the area as well, a car carrier searching as well. So, they will then move into the area and once they start to recover the debris they’ll look for anything, serial numbers, or just the shape of it (debris), the colour of the markings. They’ll find as much as they can and they’ll pass that back to the coordination centre and then they will start looking at that and then start looking and talking with experts and describe it to see if its possibly a part of wreckage and then we would look to collect more. But some wreckage if there’s serial numbers or things like that, are very obvious but for other parts it might be generic and very difficult to do. But, it is a big task.
I went up on Sunday and saw it for myself, just the vast area and how easy it would be to miss anything. You mentioned coordination which brings a question to mind – you’ve heard quite a few questions about it in the press conference. There’s been a lot of criticism of the Malaysian Government about how they’ve led this investigation, families have been demanding answers, and have felt they have not gotten them. The Prime Minister’s announcement last night – was that in coordination with the spotting of this debris or was these two separate events that happened to coincide on one day?
I really cannot comment about that. I think as analysis is carried out on quite complex systems, satellite received telemetry, all of these things take a long time to get the experts to focus and unravel amongst all of the other things these highly complex devices are doing. Bear in mind they receive an awful lot of telemetry from an awful lot of civil aviation assets that are flying around every minute of every day – so to sort out from the clutter – exactly this aircraft and its location is a major task. And I think they’ve achieved something that might be the beginning of something concrete. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As I say, when we pull something out of the ocean and someone says this is clearly a part of this aircraft, I think that will be a significant step.
As someone who is helping to lead one of the major parts of this effort, the investigation here, as the Minister of Defence, do you think the criticism of your counterparts in Malaysia has been fair because there’s been a lot of focus on that during this investigation?
Hindsight is always a wonderful thing during mysteries such as this but I think the blame game is a long way from even being started. Now, my heart goes out to the Malaysian authorities, not to mention the family and friends of the crew and passengers. Look, this has been a tragedy that has come from nowhere, who would have anticipated anything like this, an aircraft just going off the radar? And now we believe it’s about three and a half thousand kilometres away from where it was supposed to be at its last point of identification – and may I say – in one of the most outrageously remote parts of the planet. I mean, there is just nothing down there and our planes have to spend, as I say, four hours in the air before they even get close to this region. And, then they’ve got an area, as we say in Australia, about the size of (the state of) Victoria to fly around. This is a very, very difficult task.
Final question. I know you are very busy and I appreciate your time. Vice Chief – you are not in the speculation game if I have ever met anyone in the military, I know that for sure. You are working very hard to spot this debris. Are you confident this effort will find the debris at some point – or do you think there is a chance that we will never find this plane even if it landed in the Indian Ocean?
Again, it’s difficult to speculate, but we take every bit of information that comes in and it’s been shared by many nations to try and refine the search area – but there is always the possibility actually that we might not find something next week or the week after. I think eventually something will come to light but it’s going to take time.
Other related releases
Minister for Defence - Reform of Air Warfare Destroyer Program
Minister for Defence – Transcript – Interview with Michael Smyth, 891 ABC Adelaide
Minister for Defence - Transcript - Interview with Geoff Hutchison mornings programme, 720 ABC Perth
Minister for Defence - Transcript - Interview with Geoff Hutchison, 720 ABC Perth
Minister for Defence - Transcript - Interview with Leigh Sales, 7.30 ABC