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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
Potential Australian Defence Force use of unmanned platforms

McOWAN, Mr Timothy, Member, Defence Strategic Advisory Board, Department of the Chief Minister, Northern Territory Government

MENCSHELYI, Mr Stephen, General Manager, Defence, Security and Emergency Recovery, Department of the Chief Minister, Northern Territory Government

SIMS, Mr Peter, Director, Strategic Defence Liaison, Department of the Chief Minister, Northern Territory Government


CHAIR: Welcome. I remind witnesses the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for an explanation of policies or factual questions asked about when and how policies were adopted. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Mencshelyi : Yes, I do. Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to give evidence at this hearing. The Northern Territory government's submission focuses specifically on unmanned aerial systems. The submission focuses on the benefits that basing, operating and maintaining UASs, which would be used in northern Australia to support Customs and Border Protection and to support Defence. The Northern Territory is already at the centre of maritime surveillance operations across the Northern Territory. These operations include the current P-3 Orion aircraft based in Adelaide but operating from a forward-operating base in Darwin, and RAAF Base Tindal—320 kilometres south of Darwin—is home to 75 Squadron, currently Hornets but which will eventually be Joint Strike Fighter.

Both of these bases are close to the area of operations for maritime surveillance, and the basing of UAV at either of these bases provides numerous and substantial benefits for Defence. The benefits include dramatic cost savings achieved through basing close to the area of operations, whereby eliminating the flying time from southern bases to reach their primary-operating environment. Savings in fuel, aircraft maintenance, airframe hours and manning also provide opportunities for additional cost savings and response times, particularly in response to humanitarian and natural disasters, and provide initial situational awareness and damage assessments rapidly. In addition to cost benefits there are capability benefits, with aircraft able to spend more time on tasks.

The Northern Territory also offers the benefits of low air-traffic density and existing military and civil air-traffic interaction. I would suggest that the Northern Territory would provide an excellent location to trial processes and procedures to incorporate UAVs into the Australian airspace-management systems. The Northern Territory offers a unique lifestyle and family-friendly environment and the Northern Territory community offers a warm welcome to Defence members and their families who are posted north.

Also, the territory is strategically located in close proximity to Australia's northern neighbours and provides us with a unique perspective. Within 3,000 kilometres to our north is a growing, modernising Asia with over 400 million people and 25 major cities—as opposed to Australia's population of 23 million and seven major cities to our south. We are in close proximity to our significantly growing natural resources, onshore and offshore, with growing oil and gas industries across the Top End.

In developing capabilities of this kind, we should do so with consideration of the effects and impressions that this may have with our closest neighbours to our north. Decisions made by Defence in relation to basing and operations can have substantial impacts on regional economies and communities. A decision to base and maintain new capabilities in a new location can create jobs, economic growth and industrial opportunities. Increasing Defence presence and operations in the Northern Territory is consistent with the Commonwealth government's ambitions for developing northern Australia.

Defence has a very important task to do and its primary objective should not be regional economic development. However, when there is an opportunity for a decision that will not only meet Defence's and strategic requirements but also provide additional benefits to the community, without additional costs—or, even better, with cost savings—these should be considered. The basing of UAS in the Northern Territory is one such opportunity. Basing UAS in the territory can enhance Defence capability, reduce cost to Defence and provide opportunities for economic, population and industry growth in northern Australia. Thank you.

Senator BACK: Have you been able to do any figures on where you see the benefit would be, especially with regard to the upgrading of the Tindal base for the UAVs to be based?

Mr Mencshelyi : Not at this stage. In terms of the context for upgrading Tindal, the Northern Territory government's understanding is that Defence will spend a considerable amount of money on Tindal, to cater for Joint Strike Fighter requirements, to the tune of what is already approved—$470 million—with infrastructure-building commencing from the end of 2016. Future plans for Defence, I am led to believe, in the pipeline for the infrastructure will enhance that—and, potentially, further spending with the US Force Posture agreements may see additional requirements for infrastructure, across northern Australia, to support the US Air Force operations.

Senator BACK: Are you aware of whether the US is likely to be deploying these types of assets in the Northern Territory?

Mr Mencshelyi : No, I am not aware at this stage but the Force Posture agreement does not preclude it.

Senator BACK: There is opportunity, then, for greater collaboration between the two.

Mr Mencshelyi : I believe so.

Senator BACK: I want to go to the civil applications. Have you any trial work yet being done, any pilot programs? Has there been any activity taking place out of Darwin or Tindal that would point to the possible benefits of civil application? You obviously were listening to the conversation with the previous witnesses.

Mr Mencshelyi : Yes. I am not aware of any specific activity. I am aware of a number of businesses that are looking at potential applications across a number of industries, including land-resource management, potentially, in the cattle-station space, monitoring cattle herds and whatnot over vast distances. There are a number of options, in terms of using these types of platforms, to monitor and check on things like pipelines and critical-infrastructure powerlines in the oil and gas space.

There is keen interest in the Northern Territory for that to commence—even across the Northern Territory government, in the land resource-management space, the Department of Lands, Planning and the Environment, for potential back-burning in the emergency-management space. Just recently we have had two cyclones in quick succession come across what are quite isolated communities. Having those types of platforms available to NT government departments would allow us to conduct rapid assessment of isolated locations; whereas, in the physical sense, it is taken weeks if not months to get an idea of some of those damage assessments in isolated locations across the Top End.

Senator BACK: There is the Northern Australian white paper. A group of us recently here in Parliament House saw a presentation from the CSIRO where they were telling us about the work they were doing. It appealed to me at the time that northern Australia—North Queensland, the Territory, the Kimberley and the Pilbara regions—would lend themselves to a lot of this unmanned type of exploration and surveillance work. A couple of us last year, as part of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program, were part of Operation Sovereign Borders out of Larrakeyah. Are you aware of any sort of push from that direction for a higher level of surveillance capability over and above the Orions?

Mr Mencshelyi : I am not aware of any particular activities. Obviously they have significant utility in terms of reducing the potential costs for people. People are one of the biggest costs the defence and customs space. It makes sense that these platforms can do what current manned platforms can do for longer, with greater ranges and for longer durations across the Top End.

Senator BACK: Finally, have you had any engagement with air traffic control and other types of operations? As I understand it, Senator Fawcett, Darwin is a military—

Senator FAWCETT: Joint.

Senator BACK: Operated by whom?

Senator FAWCETT: It is a mix of people.

Mr Mencshelyi : Sorry, I missed that question.

Senator BACK: Darwin airport air traffic controllers are operated by civilian or by military—

Mr Mencshelyi : It is a military town with military infrastructure, which potentially makes it a good location to conduct the integration trials and get the procedures and frameworks established in a low-density airspace environment. Going back to your previous question, there was an Aeros on trial last year, I think, conducted in the Northern Territory, but I am not familiar with the specific details of that.

CHAIR: Have you done any assessment of the impact of an unmanned platform versus the current operation in Darwin—the economic cost ratio? Are you going to lose a lot of money if it goes from manned aircraft to unmanned?

Mr Mencshelyi : From the Northern Territory economic perspective, not really. The current P3 fleets operate in a forward basing type manner. Those assets reside in Adelaide and operate as required through Darwin for periods of time when Customs and Border Protection require them to. It would not be a significant economic loss if the same model were used. I note that there are critical masses that could be developed in the commercial and government space to develop an industry around supporting that, for a range of reasons. We have not done detailed analysis on it. It is potentially something that we could look to.

CHAIR: What if they were to take over the Customs and Border Protection surveillance?

Mr Mencshelyi : There is a contractor who does some of the Customs space. We have not done that analysis at this stage, but I think it is certainly worth doing.

Senator McEWEN: Following on from Senator Gallacher's question about Customs and Border Protection and the regular surveillance, that is done by Dash 8s which are based in Darwin and are operated, I think, by a private contractor. For my sins I did spend a day on one of those planes. Are you seriously suggesting that that work could be done by a UAV? There is a lot of personal interaction from sky to sea.

Mr Mencshelyi : I would posit that it is complementary. It is a case where having a number of options, layered options, with different capabilities would allow better options for Customs and Border Protection to do its core functions.

Mr McOwan : The concept would allow something such as a broad area maritime surveillance system like Triton to be able to focus other air-breather platforms and get them on station very quickly to be able to do whatever they have to do. So it is really about the pervasiveness of surveillance and being able to cover greater areas of ocean surface with greater fidelity.

Senator McEWEN: You mentioned Triton, and I notice in your submission that you say basing Triton at RAAF would be fantastic for the Northern Territory, but the Prime Minister has announced that Triton will be based in Edinburgh in South Australia. Do you know something that I do not know about where they are going to base Triton, or is that just wishful thinking on your part?

Mr McOwan : The one thing we would posit is that there are opportunities for at least forward basing on an as-required basis in order to get those platforms forward and to reduce any time delay in getting them forward to the north, in the order of about four hours. In situations of humanitarian assistance operations, expected boat arrivals or things of that nature, the concept would be that they would be forward deployed in order to be able to respond in a very timely manner.

Senator McEWEN: So, when you say basing the Triton at RAAF, you are not talking about putting the whole program in Tindal?

Mr McOwan : Not necessarily—those are options, but not necessarily.

Senator McEWEN: What conversations have you had with the federal government about your various proposals, including that one of basing some of Triton in Tindal? What has the response been?

Mr Mencshelyi : The Northern Territory government has over the last couple of months launched into an engagement program with the whole of Defence by establishing a Northern Territory Strategic Defence Advisory Board and is currently in the process of developing a strategy to ensure that the Northern Territory's position is clear on a whole range of these things. That program is very much in its infancy. We are progressively making contact with a number of groups and services across Defence to advise them of the benefits of doing so. We have not made particular inroads into the UAV space at the moment, but it is one of our key interests and we will continue to pursue that going forward.

Senator McEWEN: Is the substance of your submission what you also put to the defence white paper?

Mr Mencshelyi : Essentially, our submission to the defence white paper is significantly broader in terms of the capability, but it does provide the context of where the Northern Territory sits and the fact that it is very close to our northern neighbours and is the gateway to the Asia-Pacific.

Mr McOwan : The submission to the white paper team in the Department of Defence essentially concentrates on the strategic utility of the north and the developing infrastructure there.

Senator McEWEN: Regarding the collaboration that we have with the United States, in particular the marine deployment in Darwin, you comment in your submission that regional cooperation with the US is possible and that the USMC has rotations in Darwin. If there was collaboration of UASs with the US in Darwin, what would the local people of Darwin think about all of these drones flying around that the Marine Corps are working with Australia on? What is the public view of this kind of system?

Mr McOwan : We would not necessarily see it in that vein. We would see Australian sovereign assets potentially providing surveillance assistance and providing the surveillance information to the Americans on a shared basis as required. As you know, we do that in a number of areas in a cooperative manner already.

Mr Mencshelyi : There are a number of levels at which you can answer that question. Are we looking at the tactically smaller UAVs that the marine rotations would bring? I would posit that the use of those particular assets would likely—and we would have to clarify it with the Department of Defence—only occur in the training areas across northern Australia such as Mount Bundey and Bradshaw. There are expensive training areas which would cater for UAV use in support of their training. So I do not think you will see a situation where you will have UAVs buzzing the tower, if you like, around Darwin and over populated areas.

Senator McEWEN: Do you have any oversight of or role in, or are you consulted at all as a government about, what the Marine Corps are bringing by way of platform?

Mr Mencshelyi : Yes, we are consulted. We have regular engagement with some individuals in Pacific command, in addition to regular briefings with command and northern command on the time lines, what assets they are bringing and their time lines for anticipated growth. You may be aware that the current rotations are only about 1,100 and the anticipation is that, when the facilities allow and the timing is right, that will grow to 2½ thousand. The capabilities that they are bringing include rotary-wing assets—CH53s, which operate from Darwin airport—and artillery. I not think that that is in this particular rotation, but it may be in future iterations. We are having those discussions, understanding that there are licensing implications for US assets in the Northern Territory, which are being dealt with with the Northern Territory government. So, yes, we are quite well connected.

Senator McEWEN: There are no particular technologies or systems or platforms that they have consulted you about that have made you think, 'Hmm, maybe not'?

Mr Mencshelyi : No, nothing at this stage which is not already consistent with what the 1st Brigade has on its books.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr McOwan, can I take you back to your previous career. You are here currently as part of the Northern Territory government seeking opportunities for industry, predominantly. We have had a lot of other witnesses talk about programs, particularly where there are FMS sales out of the states and how we should be trying to provide opportunities for our industry to be involved in software development, integration, research and development, et cetera. Regarding when you were the head of Australian Defence Staff in Washington—not you individually but the role—does that role ever have placed on it a requirement by Defence to understand what Australian industry capabilities are in some of these niche areas and a specific purpose to go and engage with US services and potentially US industry so that they understand the potential collaboration as possible with Australian industry?

Mr McOwan : That is an interesting question, actually. Most of the engagement at that level and the technical level was done within either the capability development group or DMO itself. However, my responsibilities involved the strategic deployment of assets—for instance, ScanEagle into Afghanistan and exploration of certain concepts such as the concepts of use for Triton and BAMS. So it was basically at that high end—the conceptual and the strategic utility of these systems—rather than the technical issues per se, which were dealt with by the DMO staff themselves, normally.

Senator FAWCETT: We have had previous witnesses here this morning talk about US military use of Australian systems in various places—research and development—or testing in others. If the government said it was a priority for the military to advocate and work with their uniformed counterparts to basically open their eyes to the potential that comes from Australia, particularly where it is already used in the US, is that something that you see would fit comfortably within the role of the military staff at the embassy in the US?

Mr McOwan : Absolutely—advocating on behalf of Australian industry. I am sorry, I missed the thrust of your question there. Absolutely, that is a part of the responsibility. During my three years there as the defence attache, I was not given that responsibility per se as it related to UAS, but certainly in many other instances in other avenues of capability development, yes.

Senator FAWCETT: What sort of exposure do you think your staff would have needed in the US—and we could replicate that in the UK or other places—to Australian industry to have been able to speak articulately about the opportunities that may exist? Would that be a pre-posting type activity? Would that be a case of having industry come to the post and brief staff about particular opportunities as technology is maturing? How do you see that could work?

Mr McOwan : You would use both avenues. Prior to individuals being posted to the United States, they would be prepared as comprehensively as possible. You would also bring staff representatives from those corporate entities into the US to engage in a cooperative manner with the defence staff. I might add that the US defence infrastructure was always very, very interested in defence capabilities coming out of Australia. In the acquisition, technology and logistics arena within the Pentagon, they actively went around the world examining different nations and their ability to bring R&D to the market. They were always extremely impressed with the Australian endeavours in that area—actually, more so than the UK. It was quite interesting.

Senator FAWCETT: In terms of the decision of the US to make a procurement from a foreign source, their political system, the House Armed Services Committee, is far more directive. Unlike our system, where we essentially review post facto, they direct a lot up-front. Did the embassy as a whole have the opportunity to interact with those committees of the House or the Senate to try and make them aware of the opportunities here, or was that largely left to the ambassador type level?

Mr McOwan : No, we engaged where we could with the Senate and House armed services committees. More often than not they were mired in a multiplicity of other activities, but where the opportunity was presented, yes, we certainly made representations to them.

Senator FAWCETT: We have the 'G'day USA' type whole-of-Australia days. Do you think there is a possibility of having a very specific engagement with those committees around Australian industry opportunities, given the very central nature that those committees play in setting budget priorities and the scope of engagement?

Mr McOwan : I would not only be targeting the Senate and House armed services committees. Of course I would be focusing on those, but I would go into the acquisition, technology and logistics area. The present Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, was the head of that organisation, so it is a very powerful organisation both within the Pentagon itself and the US Department of Defense writ large but also in congress, on the hill. It is a very, very respected organisation. So I would be looking at both of those avenues and indeed probably engaging with all the service laboratories and the like as well, who continue to be influential in that acquisition, technology and logistics arena.

Senator FAWCETT: Do you think the science adviser within the embassy would be the right person to do that on behalf of the industry here, or do you think the industry collectively—

Mr McOwan : There is a permanent head of DMO there—a Minister-Counsellor for Defence Materiel—and that is his or her responsibility. They are quite aggressive in doing so. They do a good job on behalf of Australian industry. But I might add that it does require Australian industry to engage with them to make sure that they are advocating on their behalf.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your submission and for answering those questions.

Mr Mencshelyi : Thank you.