Interview with Jolene Laverty - ABC Darwin

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The Hon Pat Conroy MP

Minister for Defence Industry

Minister for International Development and the Pacific

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(02) 6277 7840

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27 April 2023

JOLENE LAVERTY:  Earlier this week we began to unpack the Federal Government’s Defence Strategic Review and what it means for the Northern Territory. It is a 110‑page document and it is a comprehensive look into the nation’s military’s priorities. But it also leaves some answers – some questions unanswered, and hopefully to help us navigate that is Pat Conroy, the Minister for Defence Industry. Good morning.


LAVERTY:  And you’re here with the Defence Minister, Richard Marles, and today you’re going to answer some Northern Territory-specific questions. We’re the only capital city in Australia that has been attacked during a war. In your war gaming, your scenarios that you come up with for the future of defence in Australia, how frequently does the top end and Northern Territory feature?

CONROY: Well, I have to be a bit circumspect, so we have a classified version of the DSR that goes into more detail about scenario planning, but what I can say to you is that the DSR makes it clear that we’ve entered what’s called the missile age where potential adversaries have the ability to use longer and longer range strike weapons to reach Australia. We can no longer rely on the air-sea gap that was the foundation for the 1976 and ’87 white papers. So that’s driven our recommendations and our acceptance of those recommendations to harden our northern bases. And that’s why we’re announcing today that we’ve allocated $3.8 billion to harden our northern bases as a way of strengthening the Australian Defence Force and being there to deter any potential adversary.

LAVERTY:  Yeah, $3.8 billion to harden the bases. What do you mean “harden”?

CONROY: Well, “harden” covers a few things. It includes, for example, providing more shelters for aircraft so that they can survive an attack, providing more secure storage for fuel and ordnance – weapons and bombs – and improving the infrastructure so that these bases are ready to be used, if unfortunately, we need to use them. This has been a recommendation of a number of white papers but, to be fair, nothing has really happened over the last decade, and that’s why we’re bringing this money forward urgently. And that money will be allocated to airfields across the north from northwest Australia to Northern Territory to Queensland, to support infrastructure at HMAS Coonawarra here in the Robertson Barracks, and the very important NT training areas. So it’s all about making these facilities more useable, more survivable and able to be used to project power if we need to do that.

LAVERTY:  Have you got the breakdowns of just how much you’re spending here in the Northern Territory?

CONROY: We don’t have those direct breakdowns at the moment. Across the $3.8 billion, $2 billion of that will be allocated to the airfields as the first priority. And then about a billion dollars is for the army bases and NT training range and then there’s a lesser amount for HMAS Coonawarra and HMAS Cairns. So there’s a breakdown across the domains, so to speak.

LAVERTY:  We’re in the age of the missile and the long range missile in particular: how long range are we talking?

CONROY: Well, it depends. If you’re talking about something like a Tomahawk cruise missile, which we’re acquiring for our frigates and destroyers, its range is well in excess of a thousand kilometres. One of the key parts of the Defence Strategic Review that we’re doing is reshaping and modernising the Australian Army. So it will be going from its longest range weapon being 40 kilometres – only 40 kilometres – to it being able to fire missiles in excess of 500 kilometres. So that really will give us greater deterrence for any potential regional conflict. So these ranges vary, but it’s really important that Australia have the ability to project power.

LAVERTY:  So if you get out your little compass and you draw a line from Australia to where the long range missiles will be able to hit, what could we hit?

CONROY: Well, it’s probably not helpful for international relations to talk about where we could hit. But I will make the point that long range strike – long range fires by the Australian Army is important. That’s why we’re acquiring the HIMARS system – the high mobile artillery rocket system – that’s been used to devastating effect in Ukraine. We’re accelerating land-based maritime strike. Importantly – and this is a real change with the past – we’re bringing forward and expanding investment in landing craft so that the Australian Army assets can actually deploy to other places. Obviously we don’t want to get into the hypotheticals of conflict, but it’s much better for us to be able to move our forces further away from Australia to deter any conflict rather than having people here.

LAVERTY:  Your whole business is the hypotheticals of conflict though, isn’t it Minister? I’m just plucking a country out of the top of my head about how far the missiles might go – would it hit China, for example?

CONROY: Well, China is –

LAVERTY:  Hypothetically, if you know –

CONROY: China is a lot further away than 500 kilometres. But I will make the point that we are facing the biggest arms race in our region since 1945, and China has conducted the biggest arms build-up since 1945 in conventional weapons. And we’ve been very clear that we need to equip the ADF to be able to – to be used to deter any regional conflict. And that actually contributes to peace and stability rather than provoking war. It’s about providing a strong military to support our statecraft in the region as well.

LAVERTY:  You’re hearing this morning from Pat Conroy, the Minister for Defence Industry. It’s quarter to 8 on ABC Radio Darwin.

Just on China’s military build-up, the review itself says that Chinese military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War, and you’ve said on several occasions in the last couple of days that we’ve passed the 10-year horizon warning here in Australia. So how far behind had we?

CONROY: Well, I think the last Government did do a great service to the nation by releasing the Defence Strategic Update that said that that 10-year warning horizon had evaporated, which was the foundation of Australia’s defence policy since 1945. Unfortunately they didn’t make any decisions to speed up acquisition. And what we’ve got at the moment, for example, is 28 major projects running cumulatively 97 years late. And that delay is meaning that the ADF is equipped with equipment that is getting obsolete, that is not being able to be used when we need it.

So we announced major defence procurement reforms late last year, and part of the Defence Strategic Review was about shifting the way we purchase weapons systems to a thing called minimum viable capability, which is a technical term but it basically means that accepting things when they’re at 80 or 90 per cent of what’s been promised and then agreeing to work to upgrade to get to 100 per cent. Because that 90 per cent of that new system is a heck of a lot better than what they’ve got previously. And that means – because that last 10 per cent of capability is really where you have a lot of contractual fights. So this is all about speeding up acquisition, Defence being a better contractor, which means being easier to deal with for local defence businesses, and getting weapons and systems into service as soon as possible for our soldiers, sailors and air people.

LAVERTY:  And long-range missiles, there’s already talk about them being on the coastal areas of northern Australia in particular. How many will we have here in the Northern Territory?

CONROY: Well, the force structure decisions that will flow from those units are still being worked out. We’re doubling the purchase of the HIMARS rocket systems that will equip our artillery units. And there’s a separate project called land-based maritime strike, which is a really exciting project about giving the Australian Army the ability to strike maritime targets, something I don’t think they’ve ever had.

LAVERTY:  So how many missiles? Do you have a rough idea?

CONROY: Well, the HIMARS purchase, the initial purchase, was for 20 rocket systems. And we’re roughly doubling that purchase and bringing that forward. They’re the big rocket launchers that people may have seen on television throughout the conflict in Ukraine. They’re rocket systems on top of very large trucks. We’re still tendering for the – we actually haven’t even started the tender for the land-based maritime strike, so we’ll see what options come through there. But it will be, as I said, a very significant upgrade in army firepower, going from a 40‑kilometre range to a range in excess of 500 kilometres.

LAVERTY:  And what about Pine Gap, which is closer to Alice Springs, but I’m sure those who are in the area are going, “Hang on a minute, we’re surely still a target in some way.” Is there anything in this announcement for Pine Gap?

CONROY: Your listeners would appreciate that Pine Gap is generally something we don’t talk about too much in open sources. So I really am not in a position to talk about it.

LAVERTY:  Okay. I have a text from a listener for you, Minister. So someone says regarding defence review, new replacement helicopters will be based in Townsville. This means the drawdown of 1 Aviation Regiment at Robertson Barracks, potential transfers of 300-plus families from the Palmerston Greater Darwin areas. Are you able to confirm that that’s one of the plans as part of this review?

CONROY: So one of the recommendations of the DSR, which built on earlier reviews, was to centre army aviation at Townsville. And so when the Apaches come into service they will be centred in Townsville. And we recognise that that will lead to some disruption and movement for some people in the Darwin-Palmerston area. That’s being principally done to get economies of scale around the industrial support for helicopters. We’ve had some changes supporting our helicopter fleet, and so having an industrial centre of excellence in Townsville makes sense.

But I will make the point that the DSR means more investment in the Northern Territory, more opportunities for the Northern Territory defence industry, and ultimately more defence personnel serving in Darwin. What you’ll see is a different mix of capabilities. But obviously I do understand that some people may be impacted by that move. But more work for Darwin is what the DSR means.

LAVERTY:  And when you say more defence personnel serving in Darwin, how many more?

CONROY: Well, we’re still working through those options, but what I can say to you is that there will be more personnel serving in the Northern Territory and Darwin than there were before the DSR was launched.

LAVERTY:  Earlier this week on ABC Radio Darwin we spoke to John Coyne, who is head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and he made a very good point that I wanted to play for you.


JOHN COYNE: One of the grave concerns is that if you have to undertake military operations and you’re going to deploy through northern Australia and you’re looking about – and this is one of the lessons that have come from the war in Ukraine – if you’re going to do that you have to be able to have supply chains that can be operated year round.

[End excerpt]

LAVERTY:  Yeah, at the moment we have a supply chain that when there’s a flood the rail and the road gets knocked out and then we can’t have any fresh food or vegetables. So if we’re putting all of these resources into northern bases, should we make sure that the road and rail lines to the south don’t get cut off semi-regularly in the wet season?

CONROY: Yeah, well that’s a really excellent point. And the DSR does look at infrastructure needs and, importantly, national resilience. And one of the key messages out of the DSR was a shift to national defence. There’s no point just looking at what’s in the ADF or what we’re spending on defence without looking at our entire national defence. And that’s why, for example, the review and the Government’s recommendations link it explicitly to things like fuel resilience, fuel supply, to a maritime reserve – strategic reserve maritime fleet, which was one of our election commitments. Because John is absolutely right – those supply lines are vital. We are hardening the north so that our bases are more resilient, but obviously we have to look at the infrastructure to make sure that we get the supplies to where we need them.

LAVERTY:  Yeah, so how exactly are you going to fix all of this?

CONROY: Well, we’re working through options with the state and territory governments that are impacted. Obviously a reserve maritime strategic fleet has a role in that. And we’re also looking at how we can make our infrastructure more climate resilient.

LAVERTY:  Yeah, so don’t have big swathes of bitumen washed away in a flood or any of the other things that happen when we get lots of rain?

CONROY: Well, it’s a challenge, and there’s an entire chapter of the DSR dedicated to the impact of climate change, both the impact of climate change on our national security, on our infrastructure and, to be quite frank, the call on the ADF to support communities when natural disasters strike. And, unfortunately, with climate change, we’ll see more of that.

LAVERTY:  And, of course, for our Pacific neighbours, who will be instrumental in any defence that we have and hopefully having good relations with our Pacific friends is going to be – mean that perhaps others might not be able to leverage a relationship with them that we would think was a bit hostile.

Pat Conroy is the Minister for Defence Industry. John Coyne also raised this point about where he believes the created jobs will be going.


JOHN COYNE: Certainly I’ve argued in the past that the Northern Territory and Darwin are, you know, a great place for that sort of industry. Unfortunately, I suspect that the actual manufacturing will occur in the southern states, most likely somewhere in Adelaide.

[End excerpt]

LAVERTY:  So you said we’re going to see a lot of things being built here in the top end. Just how many jobs and what kind of things will be built?

CONROY: Well I said there’d be more work in the top end, and that’s really important. So we’ve got, for example, the regional maintenance centre being explored right now for the north to support our offshore patrol vessels and our other naval assets up here. That’s really critical. So Darwin and Northern Territory will be critical for sustainment of our ADF assets. And it’s a little-known fact that two-thirds of the Defence equipment budget is spent on sustaining our weapons, so maintaining them, versus the one-third on building them. So everyone’s always interested in the very sexy construction of big naval vessels that’s occurring in Adelaide, but two-thirds of the money is spent on supporting them.

And I had a great meeting with Luke Gosling, the Member for Solomon, and Northern Territory defence industry last night and we talked about how we need their support to keep our platforms in service. And that’s where Darwin and the Northern Territory will play a critical role supporting our platforms, making sure they’re available for when we need them. And, as I said, that’s two-thirds of the Defence equipment budget, and that’s where there’s great opportunities for the Northern Territory, for north Queensland, areas where we do have significant bases and we need that support. Because we don’t want our patrol boats being sent back to Henderson in WA or to Adelaide to be repaired – we want them repaired here and supported here, and that means high-paying, secure jobs for Darwinians.

LAVERTY:  How many?

CONROY: Well, again, the tender is out, so I can’t be too specific. And I know that’s a very political answer, but I can expect the Australian Northern Territory defence industry to grow as a result of these announcements because we’re shipping more equipment up here. More equipment means more maintenance and that means more jobs.

LAVERTY:  A text says, “Are sustainment contracts for the offshore patrol vehicles tied to the Henderson yards in Western Australia or can local providers do refurbishment work on navy platforms? Given the Territory Government’s ship lift project has stalled, would the Federal Government support and fund a marine services hub?”

CONROY: Well, as I said, we’ve got the regional maintenance centre north tender being explored right now. That’s about having a company being responsible for the maintenance of our offshore patrol vessels up here in Darwin where the majority of them will be located. And that work will definitely be done up here. Obviously, if very significant structural work needs to be done, that makes sense to send it to other places, but the really critical maintenance will be done here. And I’m talking to the Northern Territory Government how we can work together. I had a good meeting with the Northern Territory Chief Minister yesterday as well about how we can work together in the future on these critical areas.

LAVERTY:  You have been reluctant to sort of name any countries that we might be able to hit with a missile, you know, and that’s very, very common sense of you. But the report itself has clearly identified China as a security threat. Our port, the Darwin Port, is leased to a company part owned by the People’s Liberation Army, and at one point this was an election issue in the last election. Does it concern the current Government about the ownership of Darwin Port?

CONROY: Well, there’s a review being conducted by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet that I don’t have visibility of, and so we’ll have to see what it comes back with and what the Government responds with. But I acknowledge that there’s been significant disquiet amongst Australians about that sale by the last Government. And that’s why the PM&C review is looking at all the implications of that.

LAVERTY:  Would the Federal Government be willing to buy it back should that be the recommendation of the review?

CONROY: Again, it’s not in my policy area, so I’m always careful – I get annoyed when other ministers talk about things in my area, and I will respect my colleagues.

LAVERTY:  Steve from Katherine asks, “How do you get soldiers from Tindal to Darwin if something happens to the Stuart Highway? Is there a contingency?”

CONROY: Well, again, we’re really getting into the weeds of hypothetical scenarios here. And I’ve got to be very careful about giving possible information that could be of use to other people. And this is one of the broader points of the DSR – is we live in an age of where the intelligence collection abilities of every country around the world is getting deeper and deeper. And we have to be more circumspect about what we talk about publicly because that open source information is a huge intelligence asset.

LAVERTY:  Another text from a listener, “The report looks into the info as Pacific as a region” – sorry, the “Indo” I think that’s meant to be – “Indo-Pacific as a region. What interoperative opportunities will come through this? Could missiles be homed in Pacific partners?”

CONROY: Well, I’m also Minister for the Pacific, so I’ve got two really interesting jobs. And we already do a lot of work cooperatively with Pacific nations. I was in Papua New Guinea for Anzac Day on Tuesday, and we already exchange units. So, for example, the Chief of the Australian Army was telling me he actually had an Australian company he served with at the barracks at Wewak for three months while a company of PNG soldiers were working out of Townsville. So we still – we already do a lot of cooperation with the Pacific nations and we’re hopeful of expanding that.

We support the Guardian Class patrol boats that provide great maritime surveillance for Pacific countries, particularly against illegal fishing. But we should be very clear, especially in the Pacific, one of the most important issues for them, one of the most important security challenges for them is climate change. And that’s why it’s important to complement what we’d call hard defence – national security issues – with action on climate change. And we’re doing both.

I was in Vanuatu two weeks ago where they unfortunately had two cyclones hit them within the space of two days. So we’re supporting Pacific nations to improve their national security, we’re also being part of the fight against climate change, because we have to do both of those things.

LAVERTY:  Just briefly – and we only have a moment left – it would be remiss of me to not put to you some of the complaints about local veterans about not getting enough support once they’ve left the force. They want to see more support in the territory akin to what you get down south in terms of concessions and recognition. Do you think that veterans in the Northern Territory need more support and recognition?

CONROY: Well, we always need to do more for veterans, and I’m very keen to engage with them. I’m not the Minister for Veterans, but I work closely with Matt Keogh, so I’m very happy to hear about their experiences and work on how we can do better. In fact, I was talking to some industry leaders yesterday through the industry skills organisation up here, and they’re very keen to develop a portal so veterans when they finish their service here can get jobs up here so they can stay in Darwin and we can use their skills to support our ADF platforms.

LAVERTY:  That is certainly one of the big ideas I’ve heard as well. Minister, thank you very much for making time to come and speak to our listeners this morning.

CONROY: My pleasure. Have a great morning.

LAVERTY:  And you. That is Pat Conroy, who is the Minister for Defence Industry. This is ABC Radio Darwin. I’m Jo Laverty, and it’s time to go to the news at 8 o’clock.


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