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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 3864


Mr CHARLES —Is the Minister for Defence aware of the remarks made by the Opposition spokesman on defence in which he said that the Government had acted against Defence Force recommendations in approving the transfer of battlefield helicopters from the Royal Australian Air Force to the Army? What was the basis of that recent helicopter decision by the Government?


Mr BEAZLEY —I thank the honourable member for his question. A number of statements made by the Opposition spokesman on defence recently have contributed to a pattern of comment which displays both ignorance of the processes by which decisions are taken in the Department of Defence and not a little menace to a couple of projects which are seriously at the centre of defence planning in this country. We have had the Jindalee project threatened. This is an Australian invention which largely solves the principal problem of Australian surveillance and intelligence gathering. The suggestion made by the Opposition spokesman that he would effectively halve this Government's program would place us in a situation where virtually none of the advantages accruing from Jindalee could be obtained. We have had the right honourable member's repeated threats to the submarine program, despite the considerable impact that that will have on Australian industry. This statement is in the vein both of ignorance of the processes of defence decision making and not a little degree of menace to the appropriate structuring of our armed forces. His Press statement, which in general was a farrago of nonsense-it was completely wrong-said this:

. . . the decision was against Service recommendations.

That decision was taken on the advice of the highest possible source of advice available to a government from the Services. It was a decision which emerged from the Chiefs of Staff Committee and conveyed to the Government by the Chief of the Defence Force. Far from being against Service recommendations, the decision was front and centre from the highest possible advice on Service matters that the Government could conceivably receive. It came forward from that Committee, not from a process which the right honourable member outlined as some form of cheapened `quid pro quo exchange' between the various Services-a sort of `you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' approach. In terms of projection, that is perhaps an interesting indication of the way in which the right honourable member viewed his management of the Services when he was Defence Minister.

The decision came as a result of serious analysis over a considerable time as to which was the appropriate Service to develop a doctrine and management for those helicopters. That was not an unusual decision because in many other countries the ground forces control and operate battlefield helicopters. The decision is sensible because it accords with what has effectively become accepted doctrine now by a number of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries on how air-land battles should proceed. Those helicopters are integral to the operations of ground forces in the same way that an armoured personnel carrier is on the modern battlefield. That the right honourable member finds difficulty in grasping that is an indication of the extent to which he has difficulty conceiving defence issues at all.

A second factor which impacted on the Chiefs of Staff Committee's judgment was the view held in the Royal Australian Air Force about the role of battlefield helicopters in the total RAAF structure. Persistently throughout the presentation of the Air Force argument was the concept that those battlefield helicopters should provide pilots for a surge capacity for the RAAF. That needs to be properly comprehended. A surge capacity effectively means that for the front line aircraft it is possible to deplete from other resources in circumstances in which the front line aircraft must be used. In the case of the Vietnam war this to some extent worked in favour of the Army because it meant fighter pilots were out among the ground forces. In this case, the effect is the opposite. In a situation where, effectively, both battlefield helicopters and front line fighters are engaged, then the battlefield helicopters cannot operate effectively. This situation is unacceptable in justifying the very substantial purchase of these helicopters. We are determined that the hundreds of millions of dollars invested should be used most effectively in the armed forces. On all grounds, the right honourable member's position was ill-conceived.

The right honourable member went on to indicate in his statement that in some way or another the Government was attempting `to neuter the RAAF'. The Government's commitment to the RAAF is clear. We are acquiring FA18s-admittedly a program started by the Opposition, but it is being paid for by our Government. We have sent out requests for proposals for airborne early warning aircraft; we are purchasing airborne refuelling equipment; we are developing the Jindalee system which will primarily be a force multiplier for the RAAF; we will upgrade the F111s; and we are building bases at Tindal and Derby and we have another air base planned for Cape York. If that constitutes neutering the Air Force or being rough on it in some way, it is a hell of a way of showing it when we are prepared to spend several billion dollars on that Service. The fact is that we are deeply committed to the RAAF as the front line of effective defence of the air-sea gap off our coastline. We are supporting our convictions in providing the RAAF with a capacity to operate very important, strategically significant, front line aircraft effectively. We are not neutering the RAAF; we are providing the most effective dispersal of those aircraft to the forces that really need them, and the force that operates the helicopters is the Army. The Opposition defence spokesman has put out a cheap Press release which displays his complete ignorance of defence matters.