Minister for Defence — Interview with Jim Middleton, Newsline, Australia Network, 18 August 2011
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, thanks for coming in.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure, Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: Why have charges been dropped against the Australian officer in connection with the deaths of the six Afghan civilians back in 2009?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, these are matters for the independent Director of Military Prosecutions but I’ve recently received advice from her, so I’m in a position to give you some response.
Firstly, there’s a directions hearing scheduled for 29 August, the 29th of this month. In the last couple of days I’ve received advice from the Director of Military Prosecutions that at that directions hearing she will indicate to the court that she’s not proposing to bring evidence against the officer concerned.
As a consequence of that, while it’s entirely a matter for the court, for the military tribunal, there’s now an expectation that the matter won’t proceed. She’s given that advice to me and she has advised the parties concerned, in particular the officer concerned and his legal representatives.
JIM MIDDLETON: This hasn’t been a spectacular episode of military justice. There’s been a lot of stress involved, very serious charges for a long time, for the three men involved and now it’s all gone to water.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I obviously acknowledge all of that but we do have an independent military process. The Director of Military Prosecutions is an independent officer. It’s a matter for the exercise of her discretion, not a matter for the exercise of mine, nor should it be.
Once the matter has been resolved, because, as I say, normally I wouldn’t be talking about a court proceeding while it’s in train, once the matter has been resolved finally by the court itself then I expect that I’ll be in a position to make some further observations about the process but I certainly don’t want to do that in advance of the actual outcome.
JIM MIDDLETON: Okay; The heavy lift matter. You’ve had a number of assurances from the Navy over the past six months or so about its heavy lift capacity. Now the Navy’s failed to deliver yet again. Six months ago the Kanimbla was to be fixed up, now it’s to be scrapped. How much money’s been wasted on this futile venture?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not sure that’s actually a correct characterisation of what’s occurred. Yes, when I received advice last year about the lack of our heavy amphibious lift capacity I made no secret of my disappointment publicly or privately but since then we’ve been working very assiduously to do a range of things.
Firstly we had to make a coldblooded judgment, a value for taxpayers’ money judgment about whether it was worthwhile continuing to persevere firstly with HMAS Manoora , secondly with Kanimbla . We decommissioned Manoora earlier this year and we’ve indicated today that we’re proposing to decommission Kanimbla .
In the meantime, the best prospect of the three heavy lift amphibious vessels that we had, HMAS Tobruk , has been undergoing maintenance. I’m expecting that towards-
JIM MIDDLETON: Can we be sure that it will, in fact, be seaworthy though?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve previously made clear publicly that at the end of this month we expect it will emerge from its maintenance for a short period of time. It’ll then go back into a previously scheduled and previously announcement maintenance to in particular prepare it for the cyclone season which always occurs starting around November. In the meantime we have been assiduous about trying to ensure and ensuring, indeed, that we’ve got cover for Tobruk .
In the first instance we ensured we had the Aurora Australis available from May to the 12 th August. We’ve had available to us the Ocean Protector , a large customs vessel, and that’ll be available into the middle of October and I made it clear today that we’re now looking at what further options we have to give cover for the Tobruk following the middle of October, early November.
In the meantime, we’ve purchased from the United Kingdom the Largs Bay which we’ve renamed HMAS Choules . That’s expected to arrive in Australia for commissioning in December and be available from January. So I don’t think your characterisation is right. It’s been a disappointing exercise but Navy, Defence and the Government have been assiduous about addressing and confronting this problem and, of course, in the meantime we’ve had the Rizzo Report which has given us a very clear-sighted pathway to making sure this problem doesn’t happen again, as we improve.
JIM MIDDLETON: You are juggling a lot of issues at the moment; the heavy lift capacity issue, submarines that can’t sail, new fighters falling behind schedule, Defence budget sloppiness and so on. Does it sometimes feel like you’ve got too many balls in the air?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s not so much in my view the issues that confront you it’s how you respond to them. How does a Minister respond, how does a Defence organisation respond, how does a Government respond?
We have to improve performance and my own judgment is that we are slowly but surely improving that performance and improving those outcomes.
On the Joint Strike Fighter, for example, what we’re doing now is absolutely ensuring that there is no risk or danger of a gap in our air combat capability.
JIM MIDDLETON: Are you resigned to the fact that you will have to get Super Hornets now?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no. I’m resigned to this approach, that we will do, in conjunction with the Joint Strike Fighter partners, in particular the United States, an exhaustive risk assessment on schedule towards the end of this year, early next year and in the course of next year I’ll make a judgment and recommend to Government, as to whether we need to exercise any other options to ensure there’s no gap in our air combat capability, moving as we have historically from F‑111s to classic Hornets, to Super Hornets and to Joint Strike Fighters.
JIM MIDDLETON: So you can guarantee that at no point in this process Australia’s regional air superiority, I should say, will be jeopardised?
STEPHEN SMITH: What I can guarantee is I will ensure that there is no gap in our air combat capability and I’ve made it clear both in the United States when I was there recently, on my return here and in the Parliament this week, that the obvious option to ensure there’s no gap in capability is further Super Hornets.
Now, we haven’t had to make that decision yet, we haven’t concluded a view on that, but I’m not going to leave it to the last minute to ensure there’s no gap in capability and that’s why we’ll make the decision next year.
JIM MIDDLETON: And if it does come to pass that there are further problems with the Joint Strike Fighter, how long into the future can, say, the Super Hornets provide the kind of superiority in the air that Australia has enjoyed for many, many decades?
STEPHEN SMITH: The Super Hornets are very good air combat planes and if we have to use the Super Hornets as a bridging capacity then that doesn’t fill me with any fear at all. They are a very good plane.
But I’m confident that the Joint Strike Fighter project will get up. We have a number of advantages. We’ve chosen the conventional variant and there’ve been far less problems with the conventional variants than the other two models.
Our pre-planning had a lot of — had a lot of padding in for cost and for schedule. We’re now starting to run up against schedule. We’re still expecting to receive our first two planes in the United States in 2014–15 for training purposes. We’ve committed ourselves to 14. Our Defence White Paper and our Defence Capability Plan talks in terms of around or up to 100 but beyond 14 the Government will make a judgment and a decision as time and as events unfold but the greatest-
JIM MIDDLETON: Will budget constraints have an impact on the numbers you buy?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not so much concerned about cost. There is a variable so far as cost is concerned which is unknown as yet and that is the extent to which the US budget difficulties will see the US navy and the US Air Force reduce the number of orders-
JIM MIDDLETON: That’s got to be a worry, hasn’t it, to Australia?
STEPHEN SMITH: We are looking at that very carefully but yes, it is of concern but it’s not something which the United States administration or their Defence establishment is walking away from.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, thanks again.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Jim. Thanks very much.
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