Interview With Ashleigh Gillon, Sky Lunchtime Agenda

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28th October 2010, 09:03pm - Views: 957

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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


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


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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