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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6780

Senator PAYNE (7:16 PM) —I rise this evening to continue some remarks I made in the previous sitting period on a report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade that was tabled last month entitled Visit to Australian forces deployed to the international coalition against terrorism. My remarks are in the context of my having had the opportunity to participate in that delegation, which, as I think I said on an earlier occasion, was an extremely valuable, educative and compelling experience in every conceivable meaning of those words.

On this occasion I want to refer in the first instance to the visit of the delegation to Ganci Air Base at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This was an interesting opportunity for most members of the delegation, who had not previously had the chance to visit that particular part of the world. Having visited Uzbekistan myself over a decade ago, to visit another of the Central Asian republics and make the comparisons that one inevitably makes in these situations was extremely useful.

One of the most important things about this aspect of the delegation, which is in fact referred to in the report, was that this visit was particularly welcomed by the senior ministers of the Kyrgy government. Both the delegation leader, Senator Ferguson, and deputy leader, Mr Brereton, had the opportunity to meet with senior ministers of the Kyrgy government and also the chief of the General Directorate of Politics in their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That discussion enabled them to identify some of the key issues between Australia and Kyrgyzstan, and also Kyrgyzstan's interest in participating in the international coalition.

One of the aspects of that discussion that I think is important to record here is that there was much welcoming of a closer association between Australia and Kyrgyzstan, which had grown out of the presence of the Australian RAAF troops in Bishkek. They also made very clear their views on the importance of having an opportunity to contribute to the war on terrorism and to participate, through their hosting of the international coalition at the airfield, in that process.

I mentioned at the conclusion of my previous remarks that the briefings the delegation received from RAAF officers at Ganci Air Base were extremely valuable and gave us a real idea of what an important role the RAAF was playing at that time. We were also honoured to be briefed by Brigadier General George Patrick from the US Air Force, who was the Coalition Commander at the base. The RAAF 84 Wing Detachment, which has since completed its deployment in Kyrgyzstan and returned to Australia, was praised for its extraordinarily high level of activity. I want to refer to one paragraph of the report, which gives some indication of the amount of work that it had actually been doing. Paragraph 5.13 of the report says:

At the time of the visit, the two Australian aircraft had refuelled 530 fighters and bombers from the United States Navy, the United States Marine Corp and the French Air Force. By the completion of the deployment in September 2002, the RAAF aircraft and crew had offloaded more than 6 million pounds of fuel to more than 800 Coalition combat aircraft.

That information comes from a defence media release issued after the return of the Air Force personnel. I think it indicates the extraordinary level of work and productivity that the RAAF detachment contributed for this particular aspect of the international coalition. It is also very important to note the extremely positive comments that we received from the Coalition Commander about the effectiveness of the Australian's contribution to the air operations. He indicated that the professionalism of the RAAF was unequalled and that the reliability and quality of the Australian operations in the air-to-air refuelling process were contributing overwhelmingly to the success of the coalition's efforts.

On touring the air base, the delegation had the opportunity to meet with a number of RAAF personnel, US service personnel, French pilots and so on. It gave us a chance to explain the reasons for our visit, particularly to those Australians deployed there. I think any member of the delegation would indicate to you that the response to those remarks was overwhelmingly positive.

In visiting the airport itself, we had the opportunity to inspect one of the 707s and have the refuelling system explained to us. There were also some fascinating details provided about the air-to-air refuelling process at night—if you think about what they are required to do, it is a very fascinating and challenging activity to be carrying out at night. The report also comments on the extraordinarily high morale and great commitment of the Australian troops deployed there. I think that is shown in the achievements of both aircraft serviceability and mission completion rates, which are on the record as a result of their contribution.

On leaving Kyrgyzstan, having spent a very brief time there, the delegation went on to spend a short time at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan itself. The movement of the delegation to Kyrgyzstan and from Kyrgyzstan was, as I have remarked before, carried out in a Hercules C130 aircraft. The delegation was particularly grateful to the RAAF for their exceptional flying skills in that process. Having landed at Bagram after a tactical air approach, which we were advised was fundamental to this process, I have only overwhelming admiration for those members of the Air Force involved.

The base itself at Bagram is an ex-Soviet military air base. It is in a state of disrepair and disarray. There is an ongoing and serious threat from landmines both in and around the base and the coalition of forces are compelled to regularly conduct demining operations and run both anti-mine education and awareness training for the villagers living around the base. Historically Afghanistan has faced an extraordinary challenge from the presence of landmines in its cities and countryside. I think the stories of the mining of Kabul about 10 years ago certainly focus the attention on the damage and destruction that those mines cause to the most innocent in the community—in Kabul's case it was very often children.

Bagram is an operational base for the international coalition but is operated within the International Security Assistance Force—commonly known as the ISAF—area of responsibility. The ISAF was established in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1386. Although the ISAF and the international coalition against terrorism are separate forces with separate command structures and different objectives, I think it is important to note that the two forces have been working in very close contact and are working closely together on matters of security, particularly in the Kabul area, as necessary. We had the chance to meet and be briefed by the Australian special forces task group in Bagram, and a visit to the task group headquarters was also made available to the members and senators of the delegation.

It is not often that one has an opportunity to experience such an extraordinarily close viewing, if you like, of Australian troop deployments in such a sensitive and important area as this, and doing such important work. We were very grateful for the comprehensive briefing that we received from the special forces task group—from their commander and his intelligence officer, and as many of the other members of the group as we could possibly speak to. That one-on-one interaction between members of the delegation and members of the special forces deployed in Afghanistan is, at the end of the day, probably one of the most acute memories that I take away from that experience. Discussing with those men their opportunities and their roles in the patrolling of the area and hearing their observations really did bring home to every single member of the delegation what an extraordinarily important role we have been playing in that process.

In conclusion, parliamentarians are often criticised for the sorts of things we do and do not do, but I think sending a parliamentary delegation to meet our troops on active deployment in such onerous circumstances is a very good way of enabling the parliament to convey messages about what they are doing and the contribution they are making to the Australian community.