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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2275

Senator MACGIBBON(9.27) —I am genuinely distressed that after that answer the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes) is now leaving the chamber. I asked a very serious question in this chamber which started this business off. The answers we got from the Department of Defence were not satisfactory. This is a very serious matter. The first line of defence for Australia is the Royal Australian Air Force. The combat squadrons of the Air Force will have to fly to the limits of their ability when a crisis comes. None of us knows when it will come. Therefore, the number of trained pilots we have and the standard of their training are vitally important to the country. Estimates Committee E did not get a satisfactory answer to the question on pilot numbers or to the question on the level of operational competence of those pilots. Despite the smarmy answer from the previous incumbent in the ministerial post, that has nothing to do with whether Senator Kilgariff had a conflict of personality with the officers who were answering questions.

As far as can be determined, we are short of fighter pilots. I suggest that it would have been more honest of the officers of the Department to have said: 'Look, we have a difficult situation. We have budgetary limitations. We have a new aircraft coming on line in the F18. We will have to train people and put them through operational training units. This is expensive and we will take a calculated risk and run our numbers down.' I am quite sure that the Senate and the people of Australia would have accepted that answer. But that is not the line that was taken. I am of the belief that we are short of fighter pilots. I think we are also short of pilots trained for the long range maritime reconnaissance role of the Orions. My understanding is that we have only seven crews in 10 Squadron and seven crews in 11 Squadron. For an established strength of 10 aircraft per squadron a reasonable crewing strength in peacetime would probably be 12 crews for those squadrons.

The second concern is the level of competence of the pilots. I am talking about pilots flying in strike aircraft-F111s and Mirages. The operational standard required is quite different from that required for flying transport aircraft, civil aircraft or any other form of aircraft. Pilots fly those aircraft to the limits of their flight envelope. I have been flying for 20 years and I do not profess to have any of those skills, but I have some knowledge of what is involved. It is not a matter of doing simulation training and a bare number of hours to become competent; it is the familiarity of flying every day or every second day and living with it. It is the awareness that keeps one alive and successful. Therefore, the number of hours the pilots in the Mirage squadrons and F111 squadrons are flying is very important, and we could get no answer on this at the Estimates Committee.

The estimates for the fuel costs for avtur for the Air Force showed that there was a decreased purchase of fuel through the period. That means that fewer hours were being flown. We were told more hours were being flown, but that was never satisfactorily resolved for the Committee. I asked: What are the number of hours? We were told at the previous Estimates committee considering the Department of Defence that there would be an 8 per cent increase. I asked for the actual projected figure, and the reply later was that flying in all types of aircraft had increased by an average of 8 per cent. There is no statement of the number of hours, for example, that Mirage pilots are flying per month or per year.

Off the record, one of the officers of the Department told me that this was confidential information. I said that that could not be true, because I can bring into this chamber copies of Aviation Week and Space Technology, a United States publications which lists the United States Air Force and United States Navy training hours on the various types of aircraft that they are using in a combat role. There is nothing secret about the number of hours being flown. It is misleading the Parliament and withholding information for the officers to be taking this line.

The position we are in is that there is an uncertainty about the number of pilots we have but, more importantly, there is uncertainty as to the amount of training they are actually receiving in the operational role. My personal judgment of their operational competence is that they are probably just getting enough. I do not think that they are getting as much as they should get. Senator Grimes, said that Senator Kilgariff had no facts, which illustrates the point that we are denied the opportunity to get those facts in relation to the Australian armed forces. There is nothing secret about them, and we should have them. Going back to my own personal view on this, I think we are probably just getting enough operational hours for these guys to get by. They probably should have more time but we cannot make a judgment on that until we see what they are actually doing and compare that with similar air forces in other countries in the Western world.