Interview, ABC Radio National Breakfast

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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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31 July 2023

SUBJECTS: Taipan helicopter crash; Australia supplying the US with missiles; Solomon Islands Defence Force.

HAMISH MACDONALD, PRESENTER: This is RN Breakfast. A large‑scale search operation will resume this morning for four men missing after an ADF chopper crashed into the ocean during operation Talisman Sabre military exercises in North Queensland on Friday. Experts say it's unlikely that any of the men on board survived making it the worst incident of its kind in two decades. But there are serious questions about why the aircraft the men were travelling in was even flying. The MRH‑90 Taipan choppers have a history of defects and technical problems, and are due to be replaced later this year.

Pat Conroy is the Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Welcome back to the program. Good morning to you.


HAMISH MACDONALD: Are these helicopters safe for our Defence personnel to be flying in?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, first of all, I think we should make it very clear that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Captain Lyon, Lieutenant Nugent, Warrant Officer Laycock, and Corporal Naggs, as the search continues and that is our first priority. It's very clear that, as the Chief of Army said yesterday, that these helicopters were declared safe to fly by the Army after risks were mitigated in response to the last incident in March of this year. So, I think I'll just refer you back to the Chief of Army's statements yesterday on that matter.

HAMISH MACDONALD: The incident you mentioned was off the coast of Jervis Bay. What was done after that to mitigate the risks?

MINISTER CONROY: Yeah, well, operations were temporarily suspended to allow time for initial investigations to determine if there were any ongoing airworthiness implications, and flights resumed in April after extensive risk analysis and implementation of risk mitigation controls occurred. And it's really important to restate what the Chief of Army said yesterday that the Army doesn't take unnecessary risks. The Army mitigated those risks and declared the helicopter safe to fly.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Sure, but what were those changes? You just mentioned risk mitigation protocols: what adaptations were made, what was done differently after that crash in March?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I'm not going to go into the details today, Hamish. You said in the introduction, "the search continues for Captain Lyon, Lieutenant Nugent, Warrant Officer Laycock and Corporal Naggs", and I think the four families deserve respect and support rather than speculating about other incidents, and I think that's what our focus should be today ‑

HAMISH MACDONALD: Respectfully, Minister ‑

MINISTER CONROY: I'll just repeat ‑

HAMISH MACDONALD: Respectfully Minister, there's no speculation here. I think most Australians would want to know that our Defence personnel are flying in safe ‑ safe aircraft. You're saying that adaptations were made. I'm simply asking you what were those adaptations?

MINISTER CONROY: Hamish, I'll say again what the Chief of Army said yesterday. Those risks were mitigated. They were declared safe to fly again, and the Chief of Army said the Army does not take unnecessary risks with the safety of their personnel.

HAMISH MACDONALD: But you can't tell us this morning how those risks were mitigated?

MINISTER CONROY: I'm not prepared to go into those details today, Hamish. Our first priority is searching for the four missing ADF personnel.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Will you look at expediting the transition to other aircraft given that that's already on course? Might you bring that forward?

MINISTER CONROY: Again, I don't think it's particularly useful to speculate on the future of those helicopters at this moment. Our focus is on the search for the four ADF personnel and providing support for the four families. The Taipan fleet is grounded while the air safety investigation team do their work. That's appropriate, and that's a responsible course of action, and we'll make decisions as the findings from that air safety investigation team are known.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Minister, over the weekend it was announced Australia will make and supply the US with missiles. The government has said it will be looking at commencing manufacturing activities in two years’ time. Realistically, when might the first missiles be sent to the US?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, we're really focused on implementing the Defence Strategic Review, and one of the recommendations of that review, that the government accepted, was to invest in giving the Australian Army long‑range strike options. It involves rockets and missiles able to reach out hundreds of kilometres as part of our investment in manufacturing missiles in this country. And the AUSMIN talks were another step in that process, with the United States agreeing to support our plans to commence manufacturing of guided multiple launch rocket system missiles or GMLRS.

These are fired from the HIMARS rocket launchers that people have seen, in effect, in devastating effect rather, in Ukraine recently. So, we intend to start manufacturing those missiles by the end of 2025 for our consumption. And we're in discussions with the United States about how we can support their industrial needs, because one of the key focuses of AUSMIN was enhancing the industrial base of both the United States and Australia to deter potential aggressors.

HAMISH MACDONALD: I'm not sure that that quite answers the question, though. When might we be sending them to the United States? You're saying that, it sounds like you're saying that it would be well after we start manufacturing them for ourselves.

MINISTER CONROY: Well, we've first got to develop the ability to manufacture them, and at the same time we're in discussions with the United States about how we can support their needs. But the critical first step was getting US agreement to support our guided weapons production capability, getting their agreement to transfer the technology to enable us to manufacture the GMLRS missiles. And, as I said, we'll start manufacturing them for Australia by the end of the ‑ 2025, which will be a massive step for the Australian defence industry and for the defence of the nation.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Some of the reporting out of those meetings also suggested that Australia and the United States would be cooperating in space. What might that involve in terms of our military strategic outlook?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, this was about adding the domain of space to our enhanced force posture cooperation. That process began under the Gillard Government with the Marine Rotational presence in Darwin, and it's been expanded to include presence by the US Air Force, and out of AUSMIN, and we agreed to have marine patrol aircraft and Army watercraft rotating through Australia to increase training readiness and deter aggression in the Indo‑Pacific. And we've also agreed to add space as another domain for cooperation; and that could take the form of many forms of corporation but it's really important to add the domain of space which is the fourth domain of the five domains of military operations.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay, but what would that mean? I suspect many Australians may not have given much thought to cooperation with the United States in space, but what do you think that would entail?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, look, it could be a range of things. We've taken steps recently to strengthen our capabilities, and we do need to maximise the effectiveness of our Defence Space Command. And so, this signals our commitment to enhanced cooperation in that area. And we're working towards enhanced information‑sharing, sharing technology, combined training and personnel exchanges and then possibly combined space operations. So, it's really in those areas: sharing technology, combining training and exchanging personnel, and then possibly combined space operations.

HAMISH MACDONALD: You're also the Minister for the Pacific and International Development. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that Australia would be very keen to help the Solomon Islands establish its own national military force. We're going to be talking about that in more detail after 8 o'clock this morning. What resources would Australia be prepared to offer to the Solomons and why is it in our interest to help the Solomons build a defence force if, indeed, that's what it decides to do?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, I was in the Solomon Islands last week and had some very productive meetings with Prime Minister Sogavare and a range of his ministers, and I was really pleased to be assured that Australia remains the primary security partner for the Solomon Islands, as we are generally throughout the Pacific. And one of our commitments, as part of that, is if there are gaps in a Pacific country's security then we stand ready to fill those. And the Solomon Islands Governor signalled a desire to establish a defence force and, of course, Deputy Prime Minister Marles has indicated that we stand ready to support that.

It's early days but we do support ‑ we are ready to support the Solomon Islands government in that effort. The Pacific Island Forum Leaders resolved last year at the Leaders' Week that if there are gaps in any Pacific country's security, they should ask other members of the Pacific family for assistance first, and this is a practical embodiment of that communique and that agreement.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Is it in Australia's interests, though, that Prime Minister Sogavare builds a defence force in the Solomons?

MINISTER CONROY: Well, these questions are for sovereign nations to answer. Our position is that if there is a gap in the security of any Pacific nation, Australia stands ready to fill it, and that's what we intend to do. This is a topic where we have lots of cooperation throughout the Pacific. We already support the Defence Force of Papua New Guinea, of Fiji, of Tonga. We provide Guardian‑class patrol boats for most Pacific nations to help with maritime security, to help with combatting illegal fishing, which is a massive ‑ has a massive impact in the region. This is a continuation of that sort of work. Our Defence Force cooperation with the Pacific is one of our key diplomatic engagements in the region.

HAMISH MACDONALD: We'll leave it there, this morning. Pat Conroy, thank you very much for your time.

MINISTER CONROY: Thanks, Hamish. Have a good day.

HAMISH MACDONALD: That's the Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for the Pacific and International Development.


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