Interview with Hamish MacDonald, ABC Radio National

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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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18 January 2023

HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: With a war raging in Ukraine and concerns around China's expansion, Australia is continuing to boost its defence capabilities, this time looking to the sky. The government is announcing it will ditch its European made Taipan helicopter fleet early, replacing it with a multibillion dollar purchase of Black Hawks from the United States. In the meantime, 70 Defence Force personnel are being farewelled in Darwin today before heading to the UK where they'll help train Ukrainian recruits. The Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles joins me now. Good morning. Welcome back to breakfast.


MACDONALD: Very well, thanks. I'd like to talk about the helicopters first. Not entirely a surprise that you're going to do this, but why have you chosen these Black Hawks and the decision to retire the Taipan helicopters early?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a decision that we've spent some time in taking. It's obviously a decision that we've spoken a lot with France about. The reason we've decided to go with the Blackhawks and to transition away from the Taipans is because really, over the course of the last decade, we've struggled in terms of getting the hours out of the Taipans that we would want, both with maintenance and having spare parts available. We're confident that the Black Hawks are a platform that we're familiar with. We have a really good proven track record in terms of their reliability and getting hours out of them. And so we think that it will be a platform which provides this capability in the way that we need for the Australian Army.

MACDONALD: Given the recent history of defence procurement arrangements between Australia and France, the Taipan’s manufacturer is Airbus. How does this decision go down with the French?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think obviously the French would have liked us to have stayed with the Taipans, but there are a couple of points to make. Firstly, French defence industry is a really important part of Australian defence industry. There's a lot of French companies who are involved in Australia. Thales, for example, is in Bendigo and manufactures the Bushmasters, which are a big part of the Australian Army and we've been sending Bushmasters, of course, to Ukraine. Airbus in Australia, Safran, I could name other companies. But perhaps the second point and the more important one is that really the issue with France is about dealing with the French with honesty and being open with them. And that's what we've done in respect of this decision. I've spoken with my counterpart, Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu, on a number of occasions in relation to this. They're aware of the thinking that we've had about it, the process that we've gone through. We've worked closely with them in relation to it. This won't be a surprise, it's definitely not a surprise, and we've been completely clear with them. And I think they've appreciated the upfront way in which we've gone about the making of this decision.

MACDONALD: In other news, 70 defence personnel heading off to the UK today to train Ukrainian recruits. Does this change the nature of what Australia's involvement with the war in Ukraine is?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is certainly the first training initiative that we will be a part of. It's a training initiative which is being led by the United Kingdom and is in the United Kingdom. So it's important to understand we're not sending troops to Ukraine. We're sending troops to Britain where they will be training those who are going into the Ukrainian Army. It forms part of an enduring commitment, really, that we've been making to Ukraine as part of this conflict, because we think it's really important that we stand with Ukraine. And we've been really clear, I guess, over the course of last year, that this was as a conflict evolving into one that was becoming protracted and would require us to be there for the long term and training, therefore, we saw as being one of the real needs that Ukraine has, because this is very much a reservist force now that Ukraine is putting into the battlefield. It's a citizen Army. It's people who are giving up their everyday jobs in order to fight for their country and the heart is there, but it's really the skills that are going to be provided by these Australian soldiers and imparted to these recruits to the Ukrainian Army are going to be really important to equip them for the battlefield, to keep them in the fight, to help save their lives. And so it's a very important deployment.

MACDONALD: We heard earlier this week from Ukraine's Ambassador to Australia. He's making it clear that Ukraine does want, does need more hardware from Australia. He talked about the possibility of more Bushmasters. There was even reference possibly to providing tanks. I understand Australia is in the process of upgrading its catalogue of tanks, that there may be some possibility of sending what we no longer need. Could you rule that in or out for us this morning?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think what I'd say is we have an ongoing dialogue with the Ukrainian government in terms of what support we can provide. And the support that we have provided is hugely appreciated by the Ukrainian government. We're one of the largest non-NATO contributors to Ukraine. We are doing all that we can and I think that's very much understood. I completely understand how the Ukrainian government would be seeking more from its partners around the world. It needs to stay in this fight and we need Ukraine to stay in the fight. So we’ll continue to talk with them about that -

MACDONALD: What do you mean this response? Are you going to give them more, or is what we've done the sum total of what we can do?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think we see this, as I said, as a conflict which has evolved into one that is protracted. And we know that we need to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. I think the combination of those two statements is that we can see that we will have to continue having a dialogue with Ukraine about what may be needed in the future. So we're open minded, but we’re also -

MACDONALD: Are you concerned about mission creep?

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, I suppose the point I was going to make is we also do this in the context of what our own needs are and what we can do. I think what we have done up until now is greatly appreciated. It is certainly remarked upon in Ukraine and in Europe that a country as far away as Australia has given such significant support. We've done that because we see that the issues which are at stake in this conflict, the significance of the global rules-based order, engage our national interest. Because whilst the global rules-based order matters in Eastern Europe, and obviously Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an affront to it, the global rules-based order matters in the Indo-Pacific as well. This conflict does matter to Australia and we will be there over the long term. Certainly we need to see how the conflict evolves in terms of what future support we provide.

MACDONALD: So on the questions pertaining to our region. It's a little while since we spoke to you last and there's been a fair amount of news bubbling up relating to AUKUS and the provision, the procurement of submarines. You are expected to announce fairly soon what Australia is going to do in terms of whether it's a US submarine that we buy or a British one, and the structure of the development process around those. How soon are we going to know the answer to this? It seems from everything that we hear and read, that despite the concerns emerging from the United States that that is ultimately where we will get submarines from.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: So the answer as to when is we've consistently said that we will announce this in the first quarter of this year and we're on track to do that. So that really means it's imminent. We see this happening in the first quarter of this year as planned.

In answer to the second question, obviously people will need to wait until the announcement is made, but I would observe that what we've done with the US and the UK is genuinely a collaborative effort, as the optimal pathway as we're describing it, has taken shape, it really is a collaboration between all three countries. It's not so much a choice between one or the other in terms of who provides what. Really, Britain and America are working together to help see Australia move down the path of being able to develop a nuclear powered submarine capability. And I think the substance of that, you'll see when we ultimately make the announcement that we will be making shortly.

MACDONALD: Deputy Prime Minister. Thank you very much.



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