5 January 2023
KENNY HEATLEY: And I’m joined now by Pat Conroy, Industry Defence Minister, to discuss more. Minister, thanks for coming in. So, this is a big spend. It’s a historic spend you would say in defence capabilities for Australia. These missile systems that we are getting, these HIMARS, they’ve had some success in Ukraine. But Ukraine is obviously very different to Australia. So how exactly are they going to be used here?
PAT CONROY: Well, this represents the biggest increase in Army’s land strike capability in living memory, if not ever. We’re going from the longest-range strike weapon for the Australian Army being about 30 kilometres to a weapon when the precision strike missile comes into action of greater than 499 kilometres. So, it’s a massive increase in the ability for the Australian Army to strike targets both at land and at sea. And it really increases the deterrence effect for the Australian Defence Force.
This is an acquisition that we’ve brought forward because Ukraine has demonstrated the usefulness of these systems but also it led to a massive spike in global demand for them. So, the Australian government brought forward the acquisition decision to make sure that we got our spot in the production line.
KENNY HEATLEY: Okay. Norwegian-made naval strike missiles for the navy’s key surface ships will be delivered next year to replace anti-ship Harpoon missiles. What extra capabilities are we talking about with that upgrade from the Harpoons?
PAT CONROY: It’s a massive upgrade as well. So, we’re replacing the Harpoons that went into service in 1977 – before I and, I dare say, you were born. So that shows the vintage of the missiles we’re replacing. These missiles have a range in excess of 185 kilometres. Importantly, they’re smart missiles with autonomous targeting systems. They’re low observability, so they’re harder to pick up by radar, and they’ve got sea-skimming technology.
Importantly, there will be technology transfer and Australian industry involvement and there’ll be interoperability because both the US Marine Corps and the US Navy are also acquiring these weapons from Kongsberg. So, it’s a real step up for Navy as well and strike capacity. And, again, there’s a big global demand for these weapons, so we’ve brought forward our decision and, in fact, the key thing was we brought forward signing the contract. We instructed Defence and Defence and Kongsberg worked really quickly to get the contract signed.
KENNY HEATLEY: Yeah, so the contract is signed, but this sale was approved by the US State Department last year under the previous government, I believe. With what you say with the demand that’s happened and everything that’s happened over the last year, particularly with Ukraine, are you – have you had any recent contact with the US and are they still able to deliver on the time frames that we’re expecting?
PAT CONROY: Absolutely. And the HIMARS decision was made last year. Importantly, the original decision by the previous government had a decision being made this year by the government to acquire them. We brought it forward. If we’d stuck to the original timeline of the previous government, we would have lost our position in the production line such is the global demand. So, we brought the decision forward, and instead of making the decision this year, we made it in November last year to make sure we locked in those systems.
I was in the United States visiting Washington in October and I had some great conversations with the Secretary of the US Army and Lockheed Martin, who make the HIMARS system, about getting this capability and, importantly, options for potential manufacture of the rockets and missiles in Australia.
KENNY HEATLEY: Just on another topic, Kevin Rudd’s been criticised for saying the US needs to stop throwing its allies under the bus. Should an incoming ambassador to the US be making comments?
PAT CONROY: Well, his remarks are very consistent with a speech Foreign Minister Penny Wong gave a couple of months ago where she encouraged the United States to match its increased presence in this region with greater economic engagement. He’s just said it in slightly different words.
KENNY HEATLEY: Yeah, because we were talking about markets in Asia, wasn’t he?
PAT CONROY: Yeah.
KENNY HEATLEY: But he also said that the US focuses too much on national security. Do you agree with him?
PAT CONROY: I’m not going to get into the commentary around that particular issue. But I’d say the main point of what Kevin was saying was consistent – in fact, it was basically the same thing that Penny Wong said two months ago.
KENNY HEATLEY: Yes, okay.
PAT CONROY: This is all a bit of a storm in a teacup.
KENNY HEATLEY: Yeah, but with everything that we’re trying to achieve with the US in all these massive Defence purchases and cooperation, you know, is it helpful?
PAT CONROY: Well, Kevin is massively respected, not just in Australia but in the United States. His appointment as Ambassador in Washington has been widely applauded within the United States by both Republicans and Democrats. And he’ll do a great job, building on the great work that’s been done by previous ambassadors, including Arthur Sinodinos and Kim Beazley.
KENNY HEATLEY: There’s reports China is partially moving to lift its two-year ban on Australian coal imports. So, can you – are you hearing much about this?
PAT CONROY: Well, I’ve seen the public reports and I think normalising our trade relationship between us and China is in the interests of both countries. I make the point, representing a coal region as I do, that our coal producers have done a great job in finding alternate markets, but obviously, I think it’s in everyone’s interests for our trading relationship to normalise.
KENNY HEATLEY: Yeah, well, the Australian dollar rallied 2 per cent. Bloomberg reported China’s National Development and Reform Commission held talks on Tuesday that could allow four Chinese importers to resume imports from Australia possibly as early as April. So that’s good news, isn’t it?
PAT CONROY: Well, I’ve seen the reports and I welcome them if they’re true. And I think it’s in everyone’s interest to normalise our trading relationship.
KENNY HEATLEY: When are you expecting to hear confirmation?
PAT CONROY: Look, that’s not in my portfolio so it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on that sort of thing.
KENNY HEATLEY: Okay. Travel restrictions on Chinese travellers, is it coming at a bad time when we are trying to thaw this diplomatic relation with China, and we are actually making this headway?
PAT CONROY: Look, again, that’s outside of my portfolio area to speculate on those things. I think the decision we made was based on a cautious approach to getting more information on what is occurring. It’s consistent with what other countries are doing around the world. How other people respond to that is a matter for them.
KENNY HEATLEY: With the Defence announcement that you’ve made today, on a final thought, what is this signalling to the world?
PAT CONROY: Well, it’s signalling the Australian government, the Albanese government’s deep commitment to increasing the capabilities of the Australian Defence Force, particularly in long-range strike. We face the greatest strategic uncertainty since World War II and that’s why we’re increasing the deterrence force of the Australian Defence Force by investing in the greatest land strike we’ve ever seen for the Australian Army and new advanced missiles for the Australian Navy. We’ve brought them forward because we need to give the ADF more capability to defend Australia, and these announcements do that.
KENNY HEATLEY: Pat Conroy, really appreciate your time. Thanks so much.
PAT CONROY: My pleasure.