Australia's Minister for Defence speaks to Newsline Australia Network

Minister for Defence
Stephen Smith, MP
30 September 2010
Transcript: Interview with Jim Middleton, Newsline, Australia Network
Jim Middleton: Minister, welcome to the program.
Stephen Smith: Pleasure Jim.
Jim Middleton: You're just back from Afghanistan, you're talking about enhancing force protection for Australian soldiers in Afghanistan against roadside bombs and the like. Does that mean more Bushmasters, more armoured vehicles, is that what you're talking about?
Stephen Smith: No, since we came to office we have now committed over $1.1billion on force protection measures in Afghanistan. That was as a result of the review instituted by my immediate predecessor Senator Faulkner and the results of those measures are now being implemented. One of the very grave difficulties we have in Afghanistan is the IEDs, the roadside bombs.
And it was quite clear when I was there in the last few days together with the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary of the Defence Department that we came to the conclusion we think we can do more on the counter-measures to those roadside bombs.
Jim Middleton: So is this, is this about body armour and personal protection or is it actually other measures that you think you can introduce?
Stephen Smith: It's force protection or personal protection. It's not just in the nature of body armour, we obviously already have that equipment but one of the particular difficulties we have in Uruzgan Province is a disproportionately high use of remote activation devices. So the roadside bombs can be activated in the nature of a booby trap or they can be activated electronically.
For reasons we are still trying to track down and analyse, there's a larger number of remotely activated bombs. And so it's measures we are trying to utilise in that area, as well as the general IED or improvised explosive device that we are now focused on.
Jim Middleton: But it's not force protection more generally? You're not talking about more troops as an [indistinct] to protect the troops?
Stephen Smith: No, no, we have made it clear all along that on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force, we believe that the current complement of around 1550 is appropriate for the purpose. Often people don't focus sufficiently enough on the purpose, which is to train and mentor the Afghan National Army, the Fourth Brigade and the Fourth Brigade Kandaks. So it's a training and mentoring role, and the advice we also have from the CDF is that the enablers and the equipment is sufficient for that purpose.
But that is always constantly reviewed. The area that we are focusing on now is in effect twofold - the implementation of the measures previously agreed to by my predecessors, which are very important, but also what additional measures, if any, we can take in respect of the roadside bombs.
Jim Middleton: Well that may be what CDF is telling you, but it's not quite what you're hearing from the troops on the ground in Afghanistan. While you were there indeed at least one soldier suggested to you that Australian troops are spread too thin, covering too much country with too few men. That does seem to suggest that they think at least there ought to be more troops. Why won't the Government give them to them?
Stephen Smith: In any area of conflict, you'll have different views, but the advice of the CDF and senior officers here was on the whole affected by the conversations and that advice...
Jim Middleton: Yeah, but there are suggestions out there and they're coming from people who are pretty well plugged into the Defence Department suggesting that the reason Defence top brass are not suggesting to the Government that there ought to be more troops is because they already know the answer, which would be no. So therefore it's a...
Stephen Smith: No, I don't agree with that. I think it's comes from, and this in part was my response to the particular soldier concerned, I think we do need to have a bit of an education campaign on having people focus on and understand our central task, which is a training and mentoring task.
And in terms of what troop numbers or assets are currently in Uruzgan Province, some people erroneously assert that the departure of the Dutch has seen a diminution in that. The reality and the truth is the reverse.
We now have all of the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan subject for the first time, all of it, to our training and mentoring. We've got a US Stryker force, which has got considerably more strike power than the previous Dutch had.
And they have roles and responsibilities which are additional upon our training and mentoring. So when you add up all of the troops on the ground, the realities are actually more on the ground now under Combined Team Uruzgan than there were when the Dutch were there.
Jim Middleton: But still we have, still we have incidents like that one where the Australian soldier was killed and then the email emerged with suggestions from his colleagues that there hadn't sufficient artillery support and the air support had been too tardy in getting there. These are real problems, aren't they?
Stephen Smith: I think we have to be very careful, and I've made this point strongly, as has the Chief of the Defence Force. Yes, there was an email from one of the deceased soldier's colleagues and I've made very clear a couple of things. Firstly, all of the circumstances, all of the issues raised in that email will be considered in the formal investigation by Defence. That is the most appropriate way of proceeding.
I've seen suggestions from a range of commentators including the Opposition - my Opposition counterpart - that anyone from the Minister to the National Security Committee of the Cabinet should take over that role and do the investigation itself. That would be neither wise nor sensible.
And it is invariably, if not often or always the case, that when the exhaustive objective examination is done, taking into account all of the views, that we get a much clearer picture. And I've made it clear there'll be no repercussions in terms of the email that was sent or the author of the email. But I want, as does the Chief of the Defence Force, all of those aspects exhaustively examined.
So that will be the subject of an appropriate investigation and procedure, as it should be. And I don't think it's wise for people to rush to judgement in advance of that, and I also don't think it's wise for people ex post facto without having the benefit of that investigation or report to think that somehow you can interpose your own tactical judgements into an area of activity where we weren't the ones on the ground, other people were.
Jim Middleton: When you talk about the idea that perhaps people are forgetting what the Australian force's primary role is, that is training up the Afghan forces, are you saying that then someone like retired General Jim Molan, who asked the question "are we in this war to win it", quote unquote, that that is in fact the wrong question?
Stephen Smith: Well, I don't want to be critical of Major General Molan. I listened and read his views, as I do other commentators and take them into account. But, for example, Major General Molan's solution is that we should have not just more troops but we should have battle tanks. The United States don't have tanks in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom don't have tanks in Afghanistan.
And when you go and look at the terrain, I think it's pretty obvious why that's not occurring. You have all of the social, military, economic and personal interchanges occurring in the so-called green zones, which are the river and the flood plains where the land and the soil is arable. Not much room for tanks on my calculation, but much more important than my anecdotal observations, of course, is the very strong advice that we have, that I have, the Government has from the Chief of the Defence Force, who says that the use of tanks would be entirely inappropriate.
So just because a commentator's views are out and about doesn't mean that he or she is right. I take my advice as I should from the Defence Department, from the Chief of the Defence Force, and we weigh that up and make judgements as a Government.
Of course, I know what other people are saying, but just because they're out there saying it doesn't mean that they're right, and from time to time I won't be shy about saying that they're wrong. Major General Molan's solution would be to have tanks in Afghanistan. I think that's wrong. More importantly so does the Chief of the Defence Force.
Jim Middleton: Minister, thanks very much for your time.
Stephen Smith: Thanks Jim. Thanks very much.