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Transcript of doorstop interview: Sydney: 28 March 2012: US Global Force Posture Review; Afghanistan

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Minister for Defence - Doorstop interview, Sydney

28 March 2012



DATE: 28 March 2012

TOPICS: US Global Force Posture Review; Afghanistan

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much for turning up. I just wanted to make some

remarks about the United States Global Force Posture Review and Australia’s Force Posture


You may recall that when we held AUSMIN, which is the meeting between Australian Foreign

and Defence Ministers and the United States Secretary of State and Secretary of State for

Defense when we met in Melbourne in November 2010, we agreed that we would work

closely with the United States on its Global Force Posture Review.

And in September last year, in San Francisco, we noted the progress that we had made and

when the President visited Australia in November last year, the Prime Minister and the

President announced a range of initiatives.

Firstly, that a United States Marine task force group would rotate out of Australian Army

facilities in the Northern Territory, starting with 250 and growing over a period of time over

five or six years to 2,500. The first of those 250 arrive early next month.

Secondly, we agreed that we would see a greater utilisation by United States Air Force of

Australian Air Force bases in the Northern Territory, in northern Australia, particularly RAAF

Darwin and RAAF Tindal.

And thirdly, we agreed that as our third priority, we would look in the future to greater access

by United States Navy of our Indian Ocean port, HMAS Stirling, in my own state of Western

Australia. And they are the three priorities that we have been focusing on.

Since the President’s visit, we have focused on bedding down the arrangements, so far as the

first group of Marines is concerned. And indeed, last week, US Assistant Secretary of State

Kurt Campbell was in Canberra- I met with him, and our conversations focused on the

success of the President’s visit, the success of our announcement and bedding down those

arrangements and, into the future, moving towards greater access so far as United States

Navy and HMAS Stirling is concerned.

Just a couple of points. Firstly, we don’t have United States bases inAustralia. We either have

joint facilities, such as Pine Gap, or we have access by United States Army, Navy and Air

Force to our facilities.

You have seen overnight the reporting and the suggestion of utilisation of Cocos Island. At

the time of the President’s visit, I made clear that Cocos Island was a long term prospect.

Cocos Island has not been the subject of detailed discussion by me, with my counterparts,

whether that’s Secretary Gates in the past or Secretary Panetta. And so suggestions that we

have had detailed discussions at my level about the utilisation of Cocos Island are not


We view Cocos as being potentially a long term strategic location, but that is down the track.

So I have made the point earlier today that people should not get ahead of themselves on

this matter, whether they are commentators, whether they are officials. The focus of the

Australian Government and the focus of the Obama administration are in those three areas

that I have referred to - the Marine task force group in the Northern Territory, greater access

to our Air Force bases in the Northern Territory and subsequently a greater utilisation of

HMAS Stirling, our Indian Ocean port.

Can I just make some remarks on another matter and then I am happy to respond to your

questions. We saw in the last couple of days the terrible injury to an Australian AusAID

worker - David Savage. Can I again express my condolences to his family and his friends for

the injuries that he has suffered. He has been transferred to Germany for medical treatment.

Overnight, his condition, I am told, I am advised, has improved from serious but stable to

satisfactory, so we hope that his condition continues to improve.

But he, together with other civilian corps members, together with other AusAID workers, are

doing very good work in Afghanistan. As it is for our soldiers, it is in difficult and dangerous

circumstances. And on this occasion, he was provided with force protection measures by the

International Security Assistance Force. In the normal course of events, those arrangements

will be reviewed, as they are after any such terrible incident.

It is also a suggestion that a child suicide bomber has been used by the Taliban in this

matter. The use of children in such a way is contemptible, and I again express my revulsion

and horror at such use of children.

I am happy to respond to your questions.

JOURNALIST: Have you ever discussed the possibility of the use of Cocos for strategic

purposes by the US with the regional neighbours? And if not, why not?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the reference to Cocos Island has emerged as a part of a commentary

that I have made in the context of the United States Global Force Posture Review and also

the President’s visit. And I made the point at the time in November-December of last year

that it was very much a long term possibility.

I haven’t had with my counterparts or, for example, recently with Kurt Campbell, when he

was here in Australia. I haven’t had a detailed discussion about the nature of access, either

naval or aerial, or the detail of any proposals or suggestions. It is very much down the track.

It is not one of our three current orders of priority.

As well, you might recall that earlier this year, I released the progress report from our own

Force Posture Review. That Force Posture Review conducted and produced by Allan Hawke

and Rick Smith, two former Secretaries of the Department of Defence, refers to Cocos Island

and refers to the need at some stage of upgrading the airfield facilities at Cocos Island. And

again, that is very much a medium to long term prospect. It is not one of our priorities at this


So in terms of our regional neighbours, having consideration of Cocos, I have put that out

there as part of my commentary. It is also contained in our own interim or progress Force

Posture Review Report that I received from Rick Smith and Allan Hawke earlier this year. And

I am expecting to receive the final report from them in the next week or so.

JOURNALIST: You said that Cocos Island would have to be upgraded. Who would do that?

Would it be Australia or would you ask the United States to help?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is one of the issues that will fall for consideration. That has been

referred to in passing. I can recall a conversation I have had with my then counterpart,

Secretary of State Robert Gates, where I made the point to him that whilst we should view

Cocos as a potential strategic asset into the future, there was significant upgrade work that

would be required.

But we haven’t gone into the detail of that costing conversation, just as we haven’t gone into

the detail of what possible types of operation or types of aircraft or types of ships might be

appropriate for joint access out of Cocos in the long term.

JOURNALIST: Would you expect a backlash from neighbours if joint access were to go ahead?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no, because we have been very transparent about the way in which

we have dealt with this matter. And that is why I say officials and commentators should not

get ahead of themselves. When AUSMIN was conducted in Melbourne in November, 2010,

then Secretary of State for Defense Robert Gates and I made public comments about the

work we were doing on the United States Global Force Posture Review. The same occurred

after San Francisco.

And, of course, when the President was here in November last year, he and the Prime

Minister announced the arrangements that we had made so far as the Marine task force

group rotating out of the Northern Territory was concerned, just as we announced the greater

access for US Air Force planes to RAAF bases in the Northern Territory and we announced the

work into the future, so far as naval access to HMAS Stirling on our western seaboard is


So we have been transparent. At the time, you may recall, that briefings were given to our

regional counterparts either in advance of or contemporaneously with the President’s and the

Prime Minister’s announcements. So we have been transparent about these matters.

As a general proposition, of course, the work we’re doing with the United States on its Global

Force Posture Review is consistent with our longstanding approach, that we regard the

presence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, we regard an enhanced by the United

States in the Asia-Pacific region as a force for peace, as a force for stability and a force for


So we welcome very much the initiative that the Prime Minister and the President announced

in November and we also look forward to continuing the work that we are doing with

theUnited States on this front but we will continue to be transparent about these matters, at

the appropriate time.

As I say, people should not get ahead of themselves.

JOURNALIST: Transparent, but have you had direct conversations with your neighbouring


STEPHEN SMITH: Not about Cocos because we’ve made it clear publicly that that is not one

of our three priorities, that is down the track, but I’ve made comments about Cocos. It’s also,

as I say, referred to in the Force Posture Review progress report presented to me by former

Defence Secretaries Allan Hawke and Rick Smith.

JOURNALIST: Down the track, can I get an idea of how long that track is?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. Our priority is bedding down the Marine task force rotational

arrangement. That’ll take place over a period of five or six years. Secondly, further work on

greater access so far as United States Air Force is concerned to our RAAF bases in the

Northern Territory and then subsequently greater naval access to HMAS Stirling and the

relevance of that, of course, is the rise of India and the rise of the Indian Ocean Rim as an

area of strategic importance.

Just our highest priority, our first priority, the Marine task force group, that’s on a timetable

of five or six years from now until 2016-2017 so I’m not putting a timetable on our

consideration of Cocos. That falls a long way behind the three priorities that I’ve referred to

and the three priorities that we have made public for some time.

JOURNALIST: When do you think you might have some detailed discussions with the United

States about Cocos Island?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not expecting any detailed discussions in the near future. We are

focused, as I’ve said, on bedding down the implementation of the Marine task force group

rotating out of Darwin. As I say, Kurt Campbell was here last week. We did not have a

conversation about Cocos. I’m not envisaging a conversation with my counterparts on Cocos

Island for some considerable time.

JOURNALIST: What kind of geographical reach would a drone have from Cocos?

STEPHEN SMITH: I see that the speculative report in the Washington Post which has been

picked up here talks about using a Global Hawk drone for maritime purposes. A Global Hawk

drone for maritime purposes has not been built yet. That capability doesn’t currently exist so

I regard that, frankly, as speculative. As I said overnight, we have not had a conversation

with the United States at my level about what assets might be used in or out of Cocos. So I

regard that as very much a speculative conversation.

JOURNALIST: Do you have concerns about the increasing use of drones by theUS?


JOURNALIST: Still on speculation, do you see that perhaps Cocos Island might one day

replace Diego Garcia, the US harbour?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you’re getting so far down the track that I’m not proposing to respond

to that but I do make this point: Diego Garcia is a United States base. We do not have United

States bases in Australia or in Australian territories and we’re not proposing to. We either

have joint facilities such as Pine Gap or we have access to Australian bases or facilities by

United States Army, Navy and Air Force. So there’s no proposal for a United States base in

Australia or in its territories.

JOURNALIST: Getting to the attack on the aid worker, are there any implications for our

mission in Afghanistan because of that?

STEPHEN SMITH: We have just under 20 AusAID and Civilian Corps workers inUruzgan

Province in Afghanistan and in Kabul and they do very good work.

As a general proposition the force protection or the protection that is provided for them is

provided either by Australian Defence Force personnel or by International Security Assistance

Force personnel. On this occasion it was provided by International Security Assistance Force


We’ve been very satisfied with the level of force protection provided by the International

Security Assistance Force just as we have bee satisfied with the force protection provided by

our own Defence Force personnel.

In the aftermath of any terrible incident such as this there is always a review about the

particular incident to see whether there are lessons to be learnt but that’ll take a bit of time,

I’m not proposing to prejudge that, but as a general proposition we’ve been satisfied and

happy with the force protection that has been provided to our civilians in Afghanistan.

JOURNALIST: What about this possible use of children as suicide bombers? What kind of

implications does that have for the mission and other Australians in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s contemptible. It’s contrary to international law. Australia has a

longstanding and proud record or arguing against the use of children in armed conflict and

the use of children by the Taliban is revolting and contemptible.

JOURNALIST: Will it have any practical implications, do you think, for troops on the ground?

STEPHEN SMITH: There are always worries about suicide bombers inAfghanistan, just as

there are always worries about the dangers of the roadside bombs, the IEDs, just as there

are always worries about Taliban and other insurgency attacks. Afghanistan, whilst we have

made progress both in terms of security but also in terms of training the Afghan National

Army and the Afghan national and local police, Afghanistan continues to be a difficult and

dangerous environment not just for our Defence Force personnel but for our civilians as the

recent terrible incident has shown.

JOURNALIST: Can we really expect to win in a conflict where the enemy is willing to use

children as weapons?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s not the first occasion where people have used children in armed conflict

and, as I say, Australia has a proud and longstanding record of being strongly opposed to

that. The use of children in such circumstances is contrary to international law, contrary to

humanitarian laws but we believe we are on track to transition to Afghan-led security

responsibility in Uruzgan Province by 2014, if not earlier and we strongly support the

international community’s commitment, expressed through the Lisbon summit, to transition

out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

We don’t want to be there forever, we can’t be there forever, but we believe that in the last

18 months to two years we’ve made up substantial ground in terms of security on the ground

itself but also made up substantial ground in terms of training and mentoring the Afghan

National Security Forces, to put them in the position to accept security responsibility.

Already nearly half of Afghanistan, in terms of population and geographical area has

transitioned to Afghan security forces responsibility. We’re expecting that Australia will be in

the so-called third tranche of transition which will occur in the middle or the third quarter of

this year and that’ll start the process for our transition out of Afghanistan, out of Uruzgan


JOURNALIST: The Guardian in theUK is reporting that UK forces or the UK plans to accelerate

its exit from Afghanistan. Will that change our timetable?

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven’t seen that report but the conversations I’ve had with Philip

Hammond, the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defence, and the statements I’ve seen

from him, including in the recent aftermath of the terrible tragedy that beset the United

Kingdom defence force personnel, is that the United Kingdom remains committed to the

Lisbon summit strategy, transitioning out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and we expect

that by the middle of 2013 the so-called Lisbon milestone would have been met, which is the

fifth and final transition to Afghan-led security responsibility.

When that occurs then the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO forces will be

there in a combat support role but the lead responsibility throughout all of Afghanistan would

by then have transitioned to Afghan National Army and Afghan national police and Afghan

local police and I haven’t seen anything from Philip Hammond which is inconsistent with that.

Indeed, the last occasion I was in Brussels with my NATO and ISAF colleagues, the one

clarion call from all of the NATO and ISAF colleagues was the phrase in together, out together

and that’s the strong commitment which Philip Hammond has expressed to me and I don’t

expect to see any change from that.

JOURNALIST: But if that were to change, would it-

STEPHEN SMITH: As I say, I don’t expect to see any change from that.

Thank you.