30 January 2024
SUBJECTS: Papua New Guinea unrest; Defence technology; Red Sea.
ANDY PARK, HOST: Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite. Welcome back to RN Drive. What do you make of those reports coming from Papua New Guinea?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, Papua New Guinea is a sovereign nation and they democratically make their own decisions. Of course, they're a very important security and partner for Australia in the Pacific and that's why the Albanese Government has been keen to reignite and strengthen that relationship and that's what we've been doing through our bilateral security agreement. I note that the Defence Minister, Justin Tkatchenko, in Papua New Guinea clearly distinguished this morning that they have an important trading relationship with China, but their security and policing relationship is very much with Australia and we hope to continue that relationship into the future and to strengthen it.
PARK: If Papua New Guinea was to do this deal, what would it mean for Australia?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, I'm not going to speculate on decisions that Papua New Guinea may make. They're a sovereign nation. Obviously, Australia sees Papua New Guinea as a very important strategic ally within our region and that's why we've made some pretty important investments in the security and policing relationship. I was in Papua New Guinea late last year where I saw firsthand the partnership that exists between the Australian Navy and the Papua New Guinea Navy regarding the Guardian-class patrol boats and the patrols that occur on a cooperative, joint basis in the Pacific. And I think that that's a great example of the strength of that relationship. That's only going to go from strength to strength in future.
PARK: So, is your government offering Papua New Guinea anything new? Since the Chinese appeared to have made this offer?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: We’ve had a long-standing relationship, an economic one, and a security and policing relationship with Papua New Guinea, and that's always grown from strength to strength and will continue to do so.
PARK: But it seems like China's upping their ante. Is your government doing the same?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, again, I note that the Papua New Guinea and Foreign Minister said that at this stage, the relationship with China is very much an economic one. China is obviously an important economic partner for Papua New Guinea, as it is for Australia. But the security relationship for Papua New Guinea is very much with the Australian government and we look to continue that into the future.
PARK: On another issue, some military commanders say Defence urgently needs to add killer drones to its arsenal to give Australian forces a fighting chance on the modern battlefield. Drones which we've seen used so effectively in Ukraine. Are those drones coming? Can those military Commanders expect them anytime soon?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: The Australian Defence Force is investing in new drone technology and I've seen that firsthand. The Ghost Bat program is a partnership between Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force. We're manufacturing that capacity in Melbourne. It's creating jobs for Australians and it has a fantastic export capacity. That's an uncrewed aerial vehicle that has the capacity to carry artillery payloads as well as that the government is investing in Ghost Shark, which is an underwater uncrewed vehicle capacity. As well as companies like Sypaq, again based in Melbourne, that are supplying cardboard drones to the Ukrainian military as we speak. So, this drone capacity, in the Australian context, is being developed.
PARK: So, why were top brass quoted in the Australian newspaper saying that without urgent steps to get combat drones into service, the ADF would face massive casualties against better equipped forces? It sounds like Australian forces don't have a fighting chance as it stands on the modern battlefield.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: I would dispute that. I've seen firsthand the technology that's being developed by the Australian Defence Force in partnership with Australian industry, creating high tech, high skilled jobs for Australians with an export potential. And I've got to say I'm pretty impressed with the technology that's being developed here in Australia and the government's comfortable with the investments that the Defence Force is making in what would be important technology into the future.
PARK: Speaking of drones, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has vowed to take all necessary actions to defend US troops after Iran backed militants killed three soldiers - US soldiers - and wounded dozens more in a drone attack on a US base in Jordan. How worried are you about Australia being, I suppose, victim of this escalating, particularly given the situation in Gaza?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the Australian government and Defence Force see this as a pretty important operation for Australia to be involved in and that's why we've tripled our personnel involvement in this operation.
PARK: Are we rethinking the request to send a warship to the US? Has that request been renewed by the US?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, at the moment, the Australian Defence Force and the government have made the decision that that's not an appropriate step to take. And given that our focus is very much on our region, the Asia Pacific, that's where our focus lies at the moment. Australia is heavily involved in a maritime capacity in ensuring freedom of navigation through a pretty important part of the maritime shipping routes that come to Australia. Three quarters of our maritime shipping comes through that Indo Pacific region and that's where our priority lies at the moment.
PARK: Just on another matter, a senior Fijian Military Officer accused of human rights abuses and torture has been appointed as a Deputy Commander of the Australian Army's 7th Brigade. Apparently, this appointment has been a long time coming. Was Defence aware of these allegations prior.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: To this appointment, I'm not aware of Defence being alerted to these allegations. Obviously, they've been reported in the papers today. Defence is no doubt aware of that.
PARK: Do you know if Defence conducted its own investigations into these claims?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm not aware of that. That's a matter for the Defence Force. And no doubt, given the allegations that are made today in the press, that that will be looked at.
PARK: Professor Jon Fraenkel from the Victoria University of Wellington has suggested to me that this was a strategic appointment to get former Bainimarama, right hand man, as he's reported to be, out of the Fijian military. Can you speak to that?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, look, these appointments are made by the Australian Defence Force and they obviously make those appointments based on experience, based on readiness and training, and it's something that the Defence Force makes as a decision. And we've seen that reporting today and Defence is no doubt looking at that.
PARK: We'll have to leave it there. Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite. Appreciate your time. Good afternoon to you.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks, Andy.