Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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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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7 February 2024

SUBJECT/S: Australian Army’s helicopter fleet; Independent analysis of Navy’s surface fleet; MRH-90 Taipans; Support for Ukraine; Hunter class frigates; Hamas- Israel conflict.

GREG JENNETT, HOST:  Richard Marles. Welcome back to afternoon briefing, our first encounter for 2024. I'm sure there'll be a few more of them. Now you've got a grab bag of new helicopter announcements today, which, of course, is plugging the gap left by Taipan helicopters. Doing the maths, just take us to where we're starting from- how many Blackhawks, currently, are in this country flying and fully in service?

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are three that are in this country right now. And we are in the process of establishing the capability, is the way I would put it. So when a Blackhawk comes here, you need to do the appropriate training on it, and make sure that you have the sustainability in place so to say, so that you can have the capability up and running. And we're still in the process of that.

JENNETT: You’re announcing today that three more will come I think by the end of March, for a total of 12 by the end of this year. Exactly. But by the end of this year, how many will we, again to use that phrase, have in this country flying and fully in service?

MARLES: Well again, there'll be 12 at the end of this year. And that's three more than was originally planned. So when we made the decision to permanently ground the Taipans, obviously that created a challenge in respect of capability. We had always, and had made this decision some time ago, planned to transition from Taipans to Blackhawks, with Blackhawks being the only capability from the end of this year. And to deal with what would have been a challenging capability gap anyway, in not being able to fly Taipans through the back half of last year and this year, that is a bigger challenge. In speaking with the United States to see whether we could have expedited the provision of Blackhawks, we do now have an additional three coming by the end of this year and indeed, earlier within the year. So three by the end of this quarter, by the end of March. We will be seeking to have those up and running in a capability sense as quickly as we can in terms of them arriving and part of that process is what we've done with Britain, where we will lease five H-135 Juno helicopters, which are basically training helicopters. Again, one of the challenges here is not just the platform, you got to make sure that the pilots are there ready to fly them, not having the Taipans in service means you don't have helicopters to fly and there's been recent pilots losing currency. So the Juno is going to be really important in keeping that currency for those pilots.

JENNETT: Okay, thanks for summarizing that. Just stepping it out a little though we obviously live in unpredictable times, if the ADF was called in to help somewhere in our region within the next couple of months or so, how many deployable army helicopters does the ADF have available?

MARLES: Well, that that is where the capability gap is felt most acutely in terms of this sort of helicopter. So Taipan going to Blackhawk, it's that type of helicopter, which is the issue. I mean, we've already had this experience over the course of the summer. And what we've been doing is deploying Chinooks to deal with the floods that have happened. And so using Chinooks, you know, in a broader range of activities is in part how we are dealing with the capability gap. We're also obviously trying to speed up the acquisition of the Blackhawks. We're not shying away from the fact though that this capability gap is a challenge. And using Chinooks in a greater range of circumstances, getting these Blackhawks earlier, making sure the pilots are trained that’s how we're dealing with it.

JENNETT: It's a real squeeze for sure. There's also the maintenance and sustainment of the forthcoming fleet of Apaches, Chinooks and Blackhawks that you've announced today. Of the ADF workers who were maintaining Taipans how many of those are still on the payroll, what's happening with them with the aircraft to actually work on?

MARLES: It is a critical workforce with critical skills, the announcements that we've made today, which is $830 million dollars’ worth of contracts for the sustainment of Blackhawks, Chinooks and Apaches as they start to come online as well and the transition from the Tigers to Apaches,  that is supporting 500 jobs in predominantly Queensland places like Townsville, and Brisbane.

JENNETT: But those caught in the gap between Taipans and this next batch?

MARLES: Well obviously we are doing everything we can in relation to them. And there has been work that's been going on in relation to the decommissioning of Taipans. Again, it is a critical workforce and we're very mindful of that and that's why we have been keen to announce these contracts today.

JENNETT: Quick final one on choppers, you will have read I'm sure, an article by my colleague Andrew Greene on ABC News, are you open to an offer from veterans to exhume the Taipans, rebuild them voluntarily and gift them to places like Ukraine?

MARLES: We've, I mean, this has obviously been an issue, which has been discussed a lot over the last couple of months. When we made the decision to permanently ground the Taipans what we then sought to do, and this is back in September, what we then sought to do was realise the greatest amount of value for the Australian taxpayer out of what we had there, and we approached defence forces around the world who were operating Taipans, what became clear is that the value in those frames lay in the spare parts that they could generate. And those frames have been since then been stripped of those parts in order to maximize the value. Now that process was well underway before we had the request from Ukraine or the EU. There is also, we need to be making sure, that what we are providing to Ukraine is useful and is practical. And that's been at the heart of all of the decisions that we've been making in relation to support for Ukraine, we are very committed to, we have been committed to supporting Ukraine, and we continue to be committed to supporting Ukraine, and you'll see more from us in relation to that. But what has you know, you draw a line through the commitments that we've made, and it is being able to provide capabilities which are sustainable in the context of the fight that Ukraine is in. And our Taipans are not that. And that is why we've made the decision in respect to Taipans. We will continue to support Ukraine in the conflict apparent that they’re engaging in.

JENNETT: I know those requests are ongoing from Ukraine, what is the value that you will extract from the Taipan airframes through parts?

MARLES: Look, I'm not in a position to give a dollar figure now, but what I can say is that we are obviously doing everything we can to maximize that. I mean there is value in those airframes and it's important in terms of value for money for the Australian taxpayer that we’re doing everything we can to maximize that.

JENNETT: The naval ship review is coming out soon. You've had South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas in your office only this week asking that you make a solid funding commitment to Hunter class frigates. There's no world where the federal government can honour its commitment to a continuous ship build the premier says and not deliver on Hunter in the first instance. What commitments did you give the premier for shipbuilding in Osborn, including Hunter frigates?

MARLES: I mean the commitment we’ve given to the Premier which is the same commitment that we’ve given to the Australian people is for continuous naval shipbuilding in this country, which includes very much at the Osborne Naval Shipyard as it does in Western Australia as well. And so all that we are doing in responding to the Surface Fleet Review is all about how we can do that in a way that does continue to maintain continuous naval shipbuilding in this country in South Australia, in Western Australia. That is not easy. It's not easy because what we inherited from the former government is the oldest surface fleet that this country has been operating, has operated since the end of the Second World War. What we've inherited from the Abbott –Turnbull- Morrison government was billions of dollars of non-funded programs, and that includes within our surface fleet. So dealing with that, and putting in place a sustainable surface fleet which sees the capability and lethality of assets to grow is a difficult question to answer. We are answering it and will come in the release of not just the Surface Fleet Review but the government's response to it which includes funding.

JENNETT: Does the review you will release come with matching announcements over and above the Defence budget currently allocated for the next budget?

MARLES: Well obviously our response to the Surface Fleet Review will come with funding. I'm not going to pre-empt what will be the announcement in relation to the Surface Fleet Review. But what we're not going to do is what the former government did, which is make a whole lot of announcements without putting the proper allocation of funding behind them. Indeed, we saw $45 billion dollars’ worth of announcements made by the former government without money behind it. You know what that does, firstly is engage in make believe, but greatly compromises the ability for the country to engage in strategic focus and to make the decisions that we need to make to increase the lethality of the Australian Defence Force and the capability the Australian Defence Force. So we will absolutely make sure that in releasing the review, but more importantly releasing the Government's response to the review it comes with the funding required for that response.

JENNETT: I’d be keen to run a ruler over that with you when the review is released. You might be aware that there has been some reports that the information supplied by Israel that lead to decisions by Australia and other governments to suspend funding to the UN's Palestinian refugee and Works Agency, that the information supplied by Israel that informed these decisions to suspend funding didn't contain any specific evidence that UNRWA staff had been involved in October 7 attacks. What evidence did the Australian Government see before making the funding pause decision?

MARLES: Well, firstly, let me make this point about UNRWA. UNRWA has been doing critical work, humanitarian work in relation to the Palestinian people for decades. Which is why governments of both persuasions have provided support to UNRWA going right back to 1951. And right now, there's about 1.4 million Palestinians who are receiving some form of support from UNRWA in obviously, the appalling circumstances which they are facing right now. Now, the allegations that were made in relation to the UNRWA staff were serious, clearly we stand, as we always have, in condemnation of the events of October 7, and very much of Hamas in carrying out those attacks on innocent people in Israel. We have put in place a pause, we've been speaking very much with like-minded countries who have also supported UNRWA and what we need to see from UNRWA now, in terms of moving forward is transparent leadership in respect of their activities so that we can have confidence going forward.

JENNETT: Did you do due diligence, though, on whatever evidence or intelligence Israel had in alerting you and other governments?

MARLES: The allegations in place around those working for UNRWA being in some way involved in October 7, on the basis of that, payments were paused. That's an appropriate response, what we called on UNRWA to do and to be fair, they have taken some initial steps which we welcome, but is to engage in transparent leadership so that we can move forward with UNRWA and we have been really clear about the important work that UNRWA has done, and the support that they’ve received from the Australian Government. We're not doing this alone. We're working with like-minded countries in our engagement with that, that's what we need to see.

JENNETT: Thank you for that explanation. We'll take it as an ongoing piece of work by this and other nations. Richard Marles. We do hope to talk to you again before too long, maybe around that naval ship review. Thanks for joining us.

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