Minister for Defence: Interview with Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland, ABC TV
TOPICS: Libya; Avalon International Air Show; Amphibious ships fleet; Joint Strike Fighter
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Now the Pentagon says it’s moving naval and air forces into position near Libya, as Western countries weigh possible military intervention.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: To discuss Australia’s response to the conflict, Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us now in the studio. Mr Smith good morning, good to see you again.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: First of all the no fly zone idea is being suggested by the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and not taken up by others at the moment. What’s your view on the possibility of some kind of military intervention, or at least involvement by Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: We need to take it step by step. The United Kingdom and subsequently the United States have indicated that’s a possibility for them. We’ll obviously see what response or reaction there is in terms of military intervention, if any. In the first instance we want to make sure that what occurs, occurs under the authority of international law, in particular the United Nations and we’re very pleased to see the Security Council essentially resolve that the International Criminal Court has a role to play in this matter. That opens up the notion of what we describe as the Responsibility to Protect, on which Gareth Evans has been very active internationally over the last few years, which essentially says that the international community has a responsibility to make sure that individual citizens of a nation aren’t oppressed by the state itself.
So we’re pleased with the actions of the United Nations. The Foreign Minister is in Geneva today, at the meeting of the International Human Rights Council. But, as I say, step by step, issues or questions of no fly zones, issues or questions of military intervention, we need to take them carefully and step by step.
As you’d expect, given Australia’s interest in the Middle East, whilst we have a very keen economic and political and social interests there, we’re not in that respect a lead nation, so particularly in terms of Libya, the United Kingdom has a longstanding historical role and that’s why you’re seeing them, in a sense, first out of the blocks on that issue.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Many international law experts say it’s an open and shut case, this issue of Responsibility to Protect and, therefore, that warrants direct military intervention.
STEPHEN SMITH: We’ve been very pleased with the way in which, slowly but surely, over the last decade or so, notions of the need for international institutions like the United Nations and for nations themselves to have upper most in their minds the rights of individual citizens and to not…
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: … it took Rwanda and Kosovo for everyone to get there of course.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, I – that’s why I’m saying it has been a big effort and we’re not there yet in terms of having entrenched it or established it as a principle of international law. But certainly the actions of the Security Council referring Libya to the International Criminal Court; the Security Council itself, talking in terms of Responsibility to Protect, is very good progress on that front.
But, in the first instance, of course, we want Libya to, through Colonel Qaddafi, to respect the rights of the citizens of Libya. We effectively want Colonel Qaddafi to go and this matter can be resolved if he was simply to walk away.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: I don’t know whether you’ve seen the latest interview he’s given to the BBC and American ABC this morning, but the man is unhinged. He looks – you look at that and he’s clearly delusional. Shouldn’t that flow into Western decision-making as to what to do?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think there’s been a longstanding and widely held view that Colonel Qaddafi is not necessarily the most rational international leader that we’ve seen, if I can use that understated expression. So whilst the simple solution is for Colonel Qaddafi to walk away, no-one’s expecting that will occur, which is why you see the United Kingdom speaking in the way in which it has; the United States as well. But also Australia and other members of the international community standing shoulder to shoulder with the Security Council, with the International Criminal Court and with Libya’s neighbours and the region on this matter.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Just one more on Libya before we move on, and if – taking it away just from Australia decision-making and policy, hearing that those people in Benghazi and elsewhere are so lightly armed when it comes to a potential direct strike on them from their leader, Muammar Qaddafi, and they need more armaments, tactically, logically, how difficult is it to get that to them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well tactically difficult, which is why, in the face of that, you see individual nation states and the Security Council looking at issues of military intervention, of no fly zones, of reference of Libya to the Criminal Court. So no-one should underestimate the difficulty of this situation and that’s, of course, one reason why we’ve been very assiduous over the last period, days and weeks, of doing everything we can to make sure that Australians who were in Libya depart. We’ve got a small number who are still there – just over 20. But we are in regular contact with them, helping some to leave and staying in regular contact with those who have chosen to stay, although our formal advice, of course, is not to travel to Libya and if you’re there, to depart.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Closer to home, you’re attending the Avalon Air Show which we were discussing this morning. Of course, we had US General North on the program talking about that too. He gave a speech to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the RAAF. That part of the Defence Force must be feeling a little happier at the moment than, say, the Navy does right now and perhaps the Air Force is enjoying a little bit more of your friendliness and support than you are feeling, clearly, towards the Navy right now. STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m ever friendly to all comers as you know. [Laughs]
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Rubbish. They must see you coming at the Navy right now, and quake in their boots.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m not sure about that.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: You’re furious at them.
STEPHEN SMITH: The Navy has had its challenges and I’ve expressed my views publicly and privately. I’ve seen references to my tone and demeanour. I’ve expressed my disappointment, but the key thing is to find a solution. And there are a range of things that we’re doing on the heavy amphibious lift, or the Navy front. One is to make sure that we now fill the capability gap which has emerged. Yes, we’re getting some what are called Landing Helicopter Docks from Spain for the middle of this decade, but it’s clear that what was previously relied upon, the Manoora, the Kanimbla, the Tobruk won’t meet the heavy amphibious lift requirement.
So I’ve had discussions with my counterpart from the United Kingdom about buying or leasing a heavy amphibious lift ship from them. We’ve got an arrangement with New Zealand for greater cooperation on that front in the region. But we’re looking at all options to make sure that we cover that capability gap.
And as you’d know I established an independent taskforce headed by Paul Rizzo. He’s doing some preliminary work now but he formally starts up with his team next week. But I want to do two things – to solve the current problem, but also to make sure we put in place steps to ensure that this never happens again.
On the Air Force front, it’s the ninetieth anniversary. Avalon is a very important time for Australia’s Air Force and the aerospace and aviation industry. And last night I did a couple of things, I complimented Air Force on the terrific job they’ve been doing on heavy air lift, particularly in the disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, whether it’s Brisbane floods, or cyclones in North Queensland, or the aftermath of Canterbury. And I also announced that we were looking at purchasing a further C-17 which is a very large heavy lift aircraft, because, given the work we’ve been doing over the last couple of months, we think that a slight change of our configuration there will advantage us for the future.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: You’ve already purchased, of course, I think it’s 10 Joint Strike Fighters from America. Is the Air Force going to see those, given they have been so over time and over budget?
STEPHEN SMITH: The advantage we have in terms of the Joint Strike Fighter which, together with the Hornets and the Super Hornets when we have the Joint Strike Fighters, will effectively be the replacement of the F1-11. The advantage we have is that we’ve always opted for what’s described as the conventional version, the 35-A. So this is not the plane which is subject to the most extreme of technological challenges and difficulties which my colleague in the United States, Defense Secretary Gates, drew attention to recently. And we also took the precaution of putting into our own calculations plenty of padding in terms of time.
So we’re still confident that we’re on track for that. It’s a challenging project, and we’re very well served, in the meantime, by the Hornets and the Super Hornets. But some of our neighbours and partners will have grave difficulty because they’ve gone for a more complicated variance of the Strike Fighter. But in what is a difficult project, we believe we’re effectively on track.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, good to see you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks. Thanks very much.
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