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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 5404

Senator JOHNSTON (2:43 PM) —Thank you, Mr President. My question is to the Minister for Defence, Senator Faulkner. Minister, last week in a speech you gave a firm commitment that the safety and security of our deployed troops would not be compromised. In light of this commitment, what safety and security measures has the government in place to protect our deployed troops based at Tarin Kowt from incoming rocket and mortar attacks?

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Defence) —I thank Senator Johnston for that question. Of course there is nothing more important than the safety and protection of our Australian Defence Force members serving overseas on operations. It is true, of course, that our ADF troops in Afghanistan work in very dangerous conditions where Taliban rockets are part of the reality of daily life. Particularly, this is true at a time when the Taliban are targeting the elections which are to be held tomorrow, as senators would be aware. The ADF and coalition forces use a range of measures to minimise the effect and impact of these attacks. As I understand it, at Tarin Kowt, which of course is the major fixed base in Oruzgan province, coalition forces use a suitable range of counter-rocket and counter-mortar measures. These measures include constant patrolling and surveillance, a base alert system for rocket and mortar attacks, physically reinforcing the areas where the soldiers work and live, and ensuring that ADF personnel are issued with protective equipment. Additionally, we are involved in negotiations to install additional counter-rocket and counter-mortar enhancements, and this includes a Singaporean weapon-locating radar to enhance warning and response capabilities. (Time expired)

Senator JOHNSTON —I thank the minister for the answer. My supplementary question is: in light of the Royal Netherlands Army suffering four casualties on 6 April—one dead and three wounded—at their base from a rocket attack a mere few hundred metres away from Australians based in Tarin Kowt, hasn’t it been because of a good deal of good luck as opposed to good management, given our lack of a sufficiently functioning and proven capability to sense and warn, particularly as to incoming rockets, that we have not suffered similar casualties to this point?

Senator Conroy —What a silly question.

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Defence) —To be fair, it is always difficult, I think, for a defence minister to make judgements about luck and management. But of course, as in every walk of life, I actually do think the point that Senator Johnston makes is correct.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Bad luck, Stephen.

Senator FAULKNER —Sorry?

Senator Ian Macdonald —I was just talking to your colleague. Press on.

Senator FAULKNER —Of course there is an element of luck involved, but there also is good management. I think it is really important to reinforce the fact that protecting Australian soldiers from rocket, artillery and mortar fire is an absolute priority. I can assure Senator Johnston that it is one that the government takes very seriously indeed, hence the measures that I have outlined in the chamber today. (Time expired)

Senator JOHNSTON —Again I thank the minister for his answer, and I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, given the British command has recently purchased five C-RAM capability systems to provide maximum protection and security for their troops based in Afghanistan, a capability that increases a soldier’s probability of survival by a rocket attack by a factor of 4.8, will you now bring forward the purchase of this vital defence capability against incoming rocket and mortar attacks, currently put on hold until 2018 in the capability plan, to ensure the safety and security of our troops on deployment in Afghanistan?

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Defence) —It is true that the Defence Capability Plan 2009 foreshadows a future project named LAND 19 which will include systems capable of countering the rocket artillery and mortar threat. LAND 19 will use advanced technology that is still under development. It is true that it is scheduled to be introduced later in the next decade. I can say to Senator Johnston that the schedule is of course regularly reviewed, along with short-term alternative systems, to ensure that we do have in place the most appropriate measures to counter the threat level in Afghanistan. There was recently a fact-finding visit to Sweden— (Time expired)