Australia — Stephen Smith on Military Prosecutions; Amphibious Ships; Joint Strike Fighter

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.

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

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter