Australia — Minister for Defence interview with Ashleigh Gillon, Sky Lunchtime Agenda

GILLON: Min­is­ter, thank you for your time.
SMITH: Plea­sure.
GILLON: Free­dom of infor­ma­tion requests have found that equip­ment and extra sup­port mea­sures promised to our troops by your Gov­ern­ment have encoun­tered prob­lems, or are yet to be devel­oped. Does that mean that our troops don’t have what they need, and are they at greater risk because of it?

SMITH: I think there are a cou­ple of gen­er­al points I need to make first. First­ly, as a result of a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion request, yes­ter­day the Depart­ment of Defence made avail­able to a num­ber of jour­nal­ists what’s called a redact­ed ver­sion of the incom­ing Gov­ern­ment brief. That means things have been removed from it for nation­al secu­ri­ty or oper­a­tional rea­sons. That redact­ed ver­sion con­tained a sched­ule of addi­tion­al force pro­tec­tion mea­sures that the Gov­ern­ment wants to put in place to pro­tect our troops in Afghanistan.

In the Bud­get of this year, May of this year, we announced, effec­tive­ly, a $1.6 bil­lion pro­gram to imple­ment 48 mea­sures over the peri­od from, effec­tive­ly, 2009/10 through to 2012/13. So there was no expec­ta­tion that these would occur overnight.

Since the incom­ing Gov­ern­ment brief advice, the advice from the Depart­ment of Defence is of the 48 mea­sures or projects, 36 have either been com­plet­ed or are on track. There are 12 where there are issues or con­cerns, two of which relate to time delays, the oth­ers are sci­en­tif­ic or tech­ni­cal or engineering. 

But we embarked upon a very ambi­tious sched­ule to get these things in place as quick­ly as we could because we want­ed to pro­tect our troops. But of the 48 mea­sures, 36 in place or on track and of the 12 where there are issues, two go to delay.

So the impor­tant thing is that we are con­stant­ly mon­i­tor­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of these addi­tion­al mea­sures to pro­tect our troops in Afghanistan.

GILLON: So back to my orig­i­nal ques­tion, I think this is the crux of these sto­ries is the ques­tion of whether or not our troops because of those extra mea­sures you just went through, those out­stand­ing ones, cause they don’t have them in place now, are they at an extra risk right now cause they aren’t under­way yet?

SMITH: You can look at this as half glass full or half glass emp­ty. I look at it this way, my pre­de­ces­sor Sen­a­tor Faulkn­er in 2009 asked for a review to be done of the so called force pro­tec­tion mea­sures — could we do more to pro­tect our troops? And the 48 rec­om­men­da­tions we accept­ed in the Bud­get to be imple­ment­ed over, in a finan­cial sense, over the peri­od I’ve referred to go to any­thing from mea­sures against the impro­vised explo­sive devices, essen­tial­ly the road­side bombs, addi­tion­al pro­tec­tion in terms of counter rock­ets or mor­tars and the things that we have imple­ment­ed to date go to mine clear­ance, to hel­mets, body armour, more effec­tive mea­sures against the boo­by traps or the road­side bombs. 

What we’re try­ing to do, and where there are either sci­en­tif­ic or engi­neer­ing dif­fi­cul­ties is to be at the cut­ting edge of pro­tec­tion of our troops, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the counter impro­vised elec­tron­ic device area. 

The two areas where there looks like there could be some delay are the most recent devel­op­ments against trig­ger­ing road­side bombs elec­tron­i­cal­ly and also strength­en­ing or hard­en­ing some of the facil­i­ties in which our troops live and work.

Any Gov­ern­ment would want these mea­sures intro­duced imme­di­ate­ly or overnight but you have to be real­is­tic about it. And as I say, the Bud­get mea­sures show the finan­cial imple­men­ta­tion from 2009/10 through to 2012/13 and we want to get these mea­sures in place as quick­ly as we can, but we also want to make sure that they work.

GILLON: But the point remains the pro­tec­tion mea­sure you would like our troops to have are not cur­rent­ly there.

SMITH: Well no. There’s 48 mea­sures that we want­ed to implement. 

GILLON: I under­stand that, but the extra ones that have not been imple­ment­ed yet, because they’re not in place yet it means the troops don’t have that full pro­tec­tion you’d like them to have in the future.

SMITH: No one ever envis­aged – not the Gov­ern­ment, not the troops on the ground, not the Defence Force, not the Chief of the Defence Force – envis­aged that these would be imple­ment­ed overnight.

GILLON: But there are delays on some of those programs?

SMITH: There are time delays on two. We’ve got 48 mea­sures, 36 in place or on track through the range of mea­sures I’ve referred to – mine clear­ance, night weapons, body armour and the like, also aer­i­al sur­veil­lance, unmanned aer­i­al sur­veil­lance. We’ve got 12 mea­sures where we’ve got con­cerns. Of those mea­sures, two relate to delays in time – one on cut­ting edge counter elec­tron­ic impro­vised explo­sive devices, the oth­ers on hard­en­ing or rein­forc­ing some of the build­ings that we occupy.

The hard­en­ing and rein­forc­ing the build­ings is the result of the dif­fi­cul­ty in get­ting the mate­ri­als in place in the cli­mate of war. The sec­ond one is as a result of try­ing to be at the cut­ting edge of these technologies.

There are some issues that I can’t refer to because I don’t want to dis­close pub­licly the addi­tion­al mea­sures we’re tak­ing to try to fur­ther pro­tect our troops.

GILLON: I do under­stand that, but can you sit here and say to the fam­i­ly mem­bers of these troops who have opened up the paper today and seen the sug­ges­tion that their loved ones are not being ful­ly pro­tect­ed, can you say to them that to the best of the Government’s capac­i­ty you are look­ing after the pro­tec­tion of our troops?

SMITH: What we can say and what the Chief of the Defence Force would also say is that it is the Government’s and Defence Force’s high­est pri­or­i­ty to make sure our troops on the ground are pro­tect­ed to the max­i­mum extent pos­si­ble. That’s the first thing. Every­thing that can be done is being done to bring these mea­sures to a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion. Some of them face sci­en­tif­ic or tech­no­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties because we are try­ing to be at the cut­ting edge but in the six months since we announced the adop­tion of these mea­sures, we have either imple­ment­ed or have on track for imple­men­ta­tion 36 out of 48.

GILLON: The major­i­ty of those. Are you expect­ing cost blowouts as a result of the prob­lems that you’ve men­tioned? Will that have an impact on the Budget’s bot­tom line?

SMITH: Most of the con­cern goes to get­ting the sci­ence and the tech­nol­o­gy and the engi­neer­ing right. I’m cur­rent­ly not con­cerned about cost. There always, in the Defence space, are cost issues. But that is cur­rent­ly not my pri­ma­ry con­cern or motivation.

The dif­fi­cul­ty for the 10 or so mea­sures where there have been expres­sions of con­cern about imple­men­ta­tion real­ly go to get­ting it right. And there’s also, in this area, always the pos­si­bil­i­ty and some­times the expec­ta­tion that some­thing that the Gov­ern­ment or the Defence Force com­mit­ted itself to just doesn’t work, it doesn’t oper­ate, it doesn’t achieve the pur­pose that was orig­i­nal­ly envis­aged. And that’s always a pos­si­bil­i­ty in these circumstances.

GILLON: I do want to ask you about the annu­al AUSMIN talks that are going to get under­way – I think it’s next week you’ll be meet­ing with Robert Gates, Hilary Clin­ton from the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion? What’s at the top of the agen­da for these talks and do you expect a request for more troops to go to Afghanistan to be part of that?

SMITH: It’ll be in Mel­bourne on Mon­day the 8th of Novem­ber. It’s the 25th annu­al AUSMIN – Aus­tralia US Min­is­te­r­i­al Meet­ing. It’s the, if you like, the Min­is­te­r­i­al clear­ing house of the Alliance. Sec­re­tary of State Clin­ton and Sec­re­tary of Defense Gates will be there. The Aus­tralian del­e­ga­tion will be led by the For­eign Min­is­ter, Mr Rudd, and by me. The Prime Min­is­ter will also obvi­ous­ly see Sec­re­tary Clin­ton and Sec­re­tary Gates.

We will tra­verse all of the strate­gic issues going to our rela­tion­ship, but we’re cer­tain­ly not expect­ing any request by the Unit­ed States for addi­tion­al resources into Afghanistan. Some time ago we increased our com­ple­ment by 40 per cent. Recent­ly we have respond­ed pos­i­tive­ly to a request from Gen­er­al Patraeus to see whether we could fur­ther assist on artillery train­ing, which we’ve been able to do with­in the cur­rent com­ple­ment. But the Unit­ed States always tell us pub­licly and pri­vate­ly that they very much appre­ci­ate the con­tri­bu­tion that we’re making.

GILLON: How does Barack Obama’s plan to start with­draw­ing troops from Afghanistan by the mid­dle of next year fit in with what we’re doing? Why can’t some of our troops start to be with­drawn at the mid­dle of next year as well?

SMITH: Pres­i­dent Obama’s approach is exact­ly the same as the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, exact­ly the same as ours, which is, we want to tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces…

GILLON: There’s no plan for our troops to come back in the mid­dle of next year, not even… 

SMITH: Nor is there a Unit­ed States plan for a with­draw­al date. The Unit­ed States plan is exact­ly the same as NATO’s, the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force’s, which is exact­ly the same as ours, which is we don’t want to…

GILLON: Pres­i­dent Oba­ma made clear that he wants troops to start com­ing back.

SMITH: Yes, he said that he would like to see a draw­down or a with­draw­al start­ing from that point in time but that has always been, to use the mil­i­tary jar­gon, con­di­tions-based. In oth­er words, no on e should expect a large num­ber of US troops to with­draw on that date.

GILLON: Do you think it’s real­is­tic then, Pres­i­dent Obama’s plan?

SMITH: The inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, Aus­tralia includ­ed, have com­mit­ted our­selves to a tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces by 2014. In Uruz­gan we’re on track for that. We believe that we can train the Afghan Nation­al Army in the next two to four years…

GILLON: So it’s too ambi­tious to look at the mid­dle of next year? That’s only sev­en or eight months away?

SMITH: The ambi­tion is to get it right, the ambi­tion is to put the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces in a posi­tion of tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty mea­sures. That’s the objec­tive that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has on behalf of the Unit­ed States, it’s the objec­tive that the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, of which Gen­er­al Patraeus is the lead Commander.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has indi­cat­ed he would like to see a draw­down of his troops start from that date, but he’s also cer­tain­ly made it clear, as Sec­re­tary of Defense Gates made it clear to me when I met him in Hanoi, they con­tin­ue to see the mis­sion, the task as a train­ing one. They’re not expect­ing to see a great num­ber of troops with­drawn from July of next year because we’re all pro­ceed­ing on the basis that none of us want to be there for­ev­er, we know we can’t with­draw tomor­row for all of the rea­sons the Gov­ern­ment has expressed in the Par­lia­men­tary debate. But we have to effect the train­ing and the tran­si­tion to the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces. And we all believe we’re on track to effect that over the next two to four years. 

GILLON: So is that call for them to start being with­drawn from the mid­dle of next year, do you think polit­i­cal moti­va­tions are behind that instead of a reflec­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground?

SMITH: The two aren’t incon­sis­tent. We know, for exam­ple, that there’s been on the ground improve­ment in the capac­i­ty of the Afghan Nation­al Army.

For exam­ple, in the recent Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions the Afghan Nation­al Army and Police – the secu­ri­ty forces – took respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty arrange­ments for that elec­tion. We know the Tal­iban sought to and tried to dis­rupt it.

ISAF forces, includ­ing Aus­tralia, were held in reserve to assist, they weren’t called upon. So there has been improve­ment in the capac­i­ty of the Afghan forces but we need to effect greater improvement.

At the Afghanistan Con­fer­ence in Kab­ul ear­li­er this year, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty essen­tial­ly set 2014 as the tran­si­tion date, as the objec­tive for tran­si­tion­ing to Afghan respon­si­bil­i­ty. It won’t be an even thing, it will occur at dif­fer­ent times in dif­fer­ent places. We think in Uruz­gan we’re on track, over the next two to four years, to effect it. But we’ve also made clear, as the Prime Min­is­ter did, as I have, that once the train­ing mis­sion is com­plete we expect that there will still be things for us to do in Afghanistan for a peri­od of time. It might be con­tin­u­ing with so called embed­ded offi­cers in the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force Head­quar­ters and we also envis­age poten­tial­ly an ongo­ing train­ing role in an insti­tu­tion­al sense in Kab­ul and there will be for the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty I think a long peri­od of devel­op­ment assis­tance and civil­ian capac­i­ty build­ing contribution. 

GILLON: Mr Smith, thanks for your time.

SMITH: Thank you. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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