Press Conference at RAAF Base Darwin

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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26 August 2022

SUBJECTS: Operation Pitch Black; China; Defence Strategic Review; Port of Darwin.

LUKE GOSLING: G’day, everyone, and welcome to RAAF Base Darwin. It’s awesome to have our Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles here with us today having a look around Pitch Black. So, Pitch Black 22 – incredible. And I really want to thank the Air Force and in particular Air Vice-Marshal Darren Goldie, the Air Commander of Australia, who’s been showing us around. We’ve spent time with the aircraft and crew from 17 different countries right here on Larrakia land in Darwin at the fulcrum of the Indo–Pacific. So, it’s I think 100 aircraft here. It’s amazing to have all of these really professional partners of Australia’s in our joint mission for a free, open Indo–Pacific, and it’s wonderful to be having this interoperability with our allies and partners.

So, it’s an absolute pleasure to have the Defence Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Richard Marles, here, and I’ll hand over to him. Thanks for coming up.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Luke, and it’s great to be here with Luke Gosling, Labor’s fantastic Member for Solomon. Luke has done such a great job representing the Darwin region in the Federal Parliament now for many years and great to be here with him. Can I also thank Air Vice‑Marshal Darren Goldie, Australia’s Air Commander, for hosting us here today at Pitch Black.

It is an absolute pleasure to be here at Pitch Black, which is the Air Force’s premier exercise. This is the exercise where we are able to demonstrate Australia’s Air Force capability to its greatest degree with other countries in the world. And this year, Pitch Black is bigger, it’s broader in terms of the number of countries that are present, and it’s more complex in terms of the engagements and the exercises which are happening. And what that means is that we are able to demonstrate a much higher end warfighting and skill in doing those much more complex exercises.

We’ve got 2,500 personnel here, more than 100 aircraft and, as I said, 17 countries. That’s great for Australia’s Air Force in terms of building our capability. It’s really important. That’s the principal purpose of Pitch Black. But it’s really wonderful that we are able to work with partners. Many have been here for a long time, such as France, who have been coming to Pitch Black for 20 years. But we’ve got three new countries here at Pitch Black in Germany, in Korea and Japan, and it’s really great to have them here. It allows us to work with friends to see different aircraft in operation; to understand the ways in which we all operate; and to build rapport amongst our nations and know‑how amongst our nations.

This is critical in terms of the evolution of the potency and the capability of our Air Force, but it also is really important as a demonstration of what we can do – building and demonstrating that capability here in Australia. It’s also, of course, a unique training space. As I’ve been speaking with personnel from France, from Germany, from Singapore, the opportunity to operate in a big country – and the Northern Territory is a big part of that country, and there are very big training spaces here – is really unique for those Air Forces, and I know how much they value that.

This is an important moment to build and demonstrate the Australian Air Force capability, and we are really proud of our service men and women and what they’ve been able to do. Questions?

JOURNALIST: Minister, do you know if China was invited to Pitch Black this year?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: China was not invited to Pitch Black. But, as I say, we’ve had a number of countries here and a number of countries here for the first time.

JOURNALIST: Do you anticipate China being invited to Pitch Black next year or in future years?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don’t think it serves to speculate about that. What we’re seeking to do with Pitch Black this year is to, first and foremost, build Australia’s Air Force capability, to demonstrate it, but to build those relationships with partners in the region.

JOURNALIST: We’ve got Korea and Japan joining for the first time. What signal do you think that sends to China?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, what is important is that we are able to build a relationship with Korea and Japan, but an operational relationship with Korea and Japan. That is what’s really critical. The more that we are learning to operate with each other, the better. And we’ve seen a strategic partnership signed with Korea at the end of last year. We’ve got a reciprocal access arrangement that we signed with Japan at the beginning of this year. These are really important steps forward in terms of greater cooperation and greater operationalising of the relationship that we have, and what we see with Pitch Black is an example of that.

JOURNALIST: In the Northern Territory, we’ve got a lot of defence facilities and airbases and that type of thing around the Territory. Supply chains are a big problem up here, particularly with things like fuel and getting missiles and stocks and that type of thing around the place. Would you like to see greater investment in the bases up here to prepare for any eventuality that arises?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Defence Strategic Review is obviously going to look at the question of force posture, and so the questions that you ask are an important part of what the Defence Strategic Review will examine. I would make the observation that Darwin and the city being here and the population being here is a huge national asset. I mean, it really is a huge national asset. When you look at what we’re doing here with Pitch Black now, the ability to do that is underpinned by having a population here. And it’s a population which is here because there’s been an investment over many decades in Northern Australia, and it’s really important that that continues.

And I think when we’ve looked at force posture reviews in the past there has been a trend of looking more north, looking more west in terms of the ability to locate our capabilities. And I’ve got no doubt that as this Defence Strategic Review examines the same set of questions, they’ll be looking at this in a similar way.

JOURNALIST: Speaking of that review, the US has approved the sale of 40 Black Hawks to Australia. Is this another example of a project that’s been quarantined from that Strategic Review?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, there is a process underway in relation to that specific capability that was underway and put in place by the former Government and has continued since the election under our Government. What we’ve said with the Defence Strategic Review is that it is not about all the operations of the Defence Force being put on hold until the review is complete; we are continuing to evolve our capabilities and that means that those immediate questions are still being worked through and considered and this is one of those processes which is underway, and the Black Hawks form a part of that.

JOURNALIST: Do you anticipate Pitch Black staying in Darwin?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I do anticipate Pitch Black staying in Darwin. This has been the base of Pitch Black. There are elements, obviously, in respect of Pitch Black which come from beyond Darwin. Tindal has been in use. There are some aircraft which are coming up from Amberley, west of Brisbane, to participate in Pitch Black, but the heart of Pitch Black has been Darwin and will continue to be.

JOURNALIST: Have you decided whether Landbridge gets to keep the Port of Darwin?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, as people are aware, there was a review that was undertaken by the former Government. We’re not privy to the advice that was given to the former Government about that and, of course, the FOI request that was released had within it a whole lot of classified information.

So, we have sought our own review as an incoming Government in relation to the Port of Darwin. We want to understand what options are available to the current Government. We want to understand what risk is given rise to by virtue of the current set of circumstances. On the basis of that, we’ll then make our decision. Thank you.


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