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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18580

Mr JOHNSON (2:04 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Would the minister inform the House what action the government is taking to counter the threat posed by man-portable air defence systems to civil aviation?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the member for Ryan for his question and for the interest he shows in this issue, which, of course, has been very much in the news in the last 24 hours. The threat from man-portable air defence systems, or MANPADS as they are known in jargon, to civil aviation is real. I think we need to understand that it is a threat which is growing. That is shown clearly in the arrest two days ago of a British citizen allegedly trying to sell MANPADS to terrorists. Also, I think it was very clearly demonstrated when, I think towards the end of last year, an Israeli passenger jet, on taking off from Mombasa in Kenya, was attacked using a MANPAD system. The missile barely missed the aircraft. Mercifully, it did miss it.

Between 1996 and 2001, I am advised, 24 aircraft are suspected of being downed or damaged in-flight by MANPADS. I understand that the bulk of these were military aircraft, not passenger aircraft. Nevertheless, it is quite a dramatic statistic. These weapons are capable of shooting down aircraft at ranges of around five kilometres and altitudes of 3,500 metres or around 10,000 feet, but they can be effective at greater distances. Some are resistant to all but the most sophisticated countermeasures. Furthermore, these weapons, which weigh only about 15 kilos when loaded, are relatively easy to use as long as the user has the appropriate training.

Stopping the proliferation of these weapons—and especially, of course, stopping these weapons falling into the hands of terrorists—has been a priority for this government and is also a priority for our friends and allies internationally. I acknowledge the presence in the gallery of the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs—he and I have been talking about security and terrorist issues over the last day. I know that the British government is particularly forthright in its endeavours to try to stop systems like the MANPAD systems.

We are not just working with the British government. Consistent with the strong support on this side of the House for the American alliance, we are working especially closely with the United States in key international arms control fora to control the production, transfer and trade in MANPADs. We have extended our support to a comprehensive G-8 initiative, which took place in June of this year, which includes the adoption of best practice export controls and a ban on transfers to non-state actors. We are also working together to strengthen guidelines on MANPAD controls through what is called the Wassenaar agreement, which is the principal international conventional weapons export control regime. Domestically, Australia applies strict and comprehensive national controls and licence procedures to regulate the import and export of MANPADs and similar weapons. These controls regulate the legal trade, which in turn helps to prevent diversion to non-state actors and terrorist groups.

In concluding my answer to the honourable member for Ryan's question, let me say that there is no intelligence to suggest that MANPADs pose an immediate threat to aviation in Australia. But the government and the airline industry—and I know the Deputy Prime Minister, as Minister for Transport and Regional Services, is particularly focused on this—do take this issue very seriously. We have a robust aviation security framework in place in Australia that is comparable to systems in the United Kingdom and the United States. This problem of MANPADs will be assessed as part of a continuous review process to ensure Australia continues to meet emerging threats.