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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26184


Senator FERRIS (4:45 PM) —On behalf of the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Senator Ferguson, I present a report entitled Review of the defence annual report 2002-03 and move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I seek leave to have a tabling statement incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows—

Mr President, the period between July 2002 and June 2003 covered the tragic Bali Bombings, the release of the Defence Update and the review of the Defence Capability Plan which was made public in November 2003. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 resulted in a range of national security initiatives and commitments to coalition operations in the war against terrorism. The Bali Bombings on 12 October 2002 demonstrated that Australia cannot relent in its fight against terrorism.

The Defence Update sought to raise the prominence of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction together with the challenges faced by countries in our region. These priorities have signalled changes in Defence's strategic objectives and the capabilities with which they are delivered.

Mr President, the topics selected for examination as part of the review of the 2002-2003 Defence Annual Report are linked to some of the new challenges facing the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Topic one focuses on Australia's continuing involvement in the Middle East. The Annual Report stated that `about 800 Defence personnel remain in the Middle East area of operations under trying and difficult circumstances to contribute to Iraq's stability and reconstruction.'

One of the most sensitive matters examined as part of the review was the decision by Defence to retire the F-111 in 2010. The 2000 Defence White Paper previously stated that the F-111 would be retired in the 2015-2020 timeframe. Defence indicated that the F-111 `will be a very high cost platform to maintain and there is also the risk of losing the capability altogether through ageing aircraft factors.'

Mr President, the 2000 Defence White Paper states that `air combat is the most important single capability for the defence of Australia.' Australia's air combat capability is provided through a fleet of F/A-18 Hornets. Australia's strike capability, consisting primarily of our fleet of F-111s, is also an important element of Australia's military posture because it provides us with the flexibility to destroy hostile forces before they are launched towards Australia.

Accordingly, the decision to retire the F-111 in 2010 was given significant attention by the committee and was the subject of intense examination during a series of public hearings. A concern was raised by some groups in their evidence that retiring the F-111 in 2010 could leave Australia with a capability gap which could ultimately undermine Australia's ability to maintain air superiority.

The committee in addressing matters relating to the decision to retire the F-111 in 2010 has recommended a range of measures that will provide reassurance to the parliament and the Australian public. The committee recommends that, in 2006, the Government should make a statement focusing on:

the most accurate delivery date for the replacement combat aircraft;

the implications this date will have on the decision to retire the F-111 in 2010;

the need to ensure that key upgrades and deep maintenance on the F-111 continues through to 2010 with the possibility of extending the lifespan should the need arise; and

the measures the Government will take to ensure that Australia's superiority in air combat capability in the region is maintained.

The committee also recommends that, at the start of the next Parliament, the Minister for Defence requests the committee to conduct an inquiry into the ability of the Australian Defence Force to maintain air superiority in our region to 2020.

Mr President, the committee concludes that the implementation of these measures will help to provide reassurance and coherence to managing Australia's air combat capability as Defence seeks to manage the transition from ageing to new aircraft platforms.

In addition to the previous matters, the committee also focused on aspects of the ADF's National Support Tasks. The role and effectiveness of the Army ATSIC Community Assistance Program (AACAP) was examined. Through this program, Defence together with ATSIC and the Department of Health and Ageing provide assistance to a number of remote indigenous communities to improve environmental health and living conditions. On 2 October 2003 the committee visited Palm Island and received a briefing and inspected progress with AACAP's achievements in that community.

The committee encourages the continuation of the AACAP program, and recommends that in 2005 Defence should undertake another review of the conditions of service for ADF members on AACAP projects to ensure that there are no anomalies in conditions of service and that they are commensurate with the work performed.

In conclusion, and on behalf of the Committee, I would like to thank the range of groups and individuals that contributed to this inquiry.

Mr President, I commend the Report to the Senate.

Question agreed to.