GILLON: Minister, thank you for your time.
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.
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