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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 213

Senator JOHNSTON (12:57 PM) —On 21 September this year it was widely reported that a front-line soldier engaged in a firefight where another member of that platoon was fatally shot had sent an email to a friend making quite detailed and damning accusations and assertions as to the level of support the patrol had received upon being engaged by the enemy. This is a very, very serious matter, particularly given the past history of British and Polish forces in Afghanistan—both have sustained significant casualty levels whilst at the same time being subjected to very damaging allegations that front-line combat soldiers were inadequately supplied with equipment and ammunition.

The email in question sets out very clear and particular complaints with respect to the level of force protection and operational security available to the patrol upon being engaged by a large number of the enemy over the course of 3½ hours. These complaints specifically relate to the following: firstly, the patrol ran low on ammunition during that 3½-hour firefight; secondly, there was a complete lack of support from artillery, mortars or aircraft; and, thirdly, there was inadequate intelligence as to the strength of the enemy at this particular location. Allegations that the Australian government, the minister and the senior chain of command have failed to adequately support fighting soldiers with adequate and suitable platforms and sufficient ammunition are probably the most damaging and serious allegations that could possibly be levelled in a conflict such as this, particularly where one Australian soldier has been killed in such action.

These allegations have been dismissed in a most cavalier and offhand manner, firstly by Lieutenant-General Evans when he labelled the claims of this eyewitness participant as ‘wrong, ill-informed and not helpful’. The dismissal of such a gravely serious complaint in such a manner is neither acceptable nor reasonable. Frankly, the communication of such an important matter and its subsequent newspaper publication is something that all Australians, and particularly parliamentarians, should be aware of so that expedient inquiries can be undertaken and measured explanations given. A ‘shoot the messenger’ response to these matters and to this email does no credit to the government or the senior chain of command on such important questions. Whilst the minister is new and has limited Defence experience, there can be no excuse for the complete lethargy of response by him in saying that these matters will be looked at in a wider investigation into the death of Lance Corporal Jared McKinney, who died on 24 August. The National Security Committee of Cabinet should and must as a matter of urgency be presented with the precise chronology of the evolution of this contact, seeking a full disclosure of the availability, the timely use and effectiveness of fire support and air support elements, if any. I have no confidence or faith that this has occurred to this point in time.

My concerns, and those of very many Australians who are worried by the content of this email, are further exacerbated by the recent response of the Minister for Defence in talking to soldiers in Afghanistan. One soldier, to his great credit, asked the defence minister, Mr Smith—at a forward operating patrol base, Razaq in the Dihrawud district where Australian soldiers have been living for up to eight months at a time, alongside Afghan National Army recruits—why Australian forces have not increased despite the extra responsibilities that they are now undertaking. Those extra responsibilities are because the Dutch have left Oruzgan province. The soldier said to the defence minister: ‘We’ve doubled the area of operation but we haven’t really doubled the troop numbers over here. I think we’re spread a bit thin at the moment.’ The soldier then continued to ask the minister if Australian troops would double or increase, but Minister Smith said that overall numbers would not increase. The minister’s response was dismissive when he said, ‘In the end we have got to put the Afghan forces in a position to do that effort themselves.’ The interim worries me greatly.

Further to this, the minister has confirmed that in meeting General Petraeus there was a request for a further contribution from Australia. This is a very significant matter that requires further explanation by the minister. There is clearly and obviously a significant issue here, and I—and all concerned Australians—would be as dilatory and cavalier as this government were I not to demand a full and proper response and, indeed, proper action. The motivation of myself and all who have expressed concerns should be obvious. The proposition posed by the email, and all of these matters, is the fundamental question as to whether the loss of Private Jared McKinney could have been avoided had adequate support and planning been evident. All of us have a duty to ask that question and to see it properly, transparently and fully answered.

The opposition will continue to provide bipartisan support for our presence in Afghanistan. However, we are so concerned with the current Labor-Green alliance that I feel compelled to speak up on the current situation. The opposition would be prepared to sit down with the government and constructively discuss the requests for further increases in troops and deployed equipment that we know have come from the commanders in the field and the troops themselves. The opposition would be supportive of such considerations and would assist the government in a bipartisan way to deploy further support assets to 6RAR battle group as a matter of urgency. Such support would be in the nature of signal squadron, engineer squadron, cavalry squadron, gun regiment and elements of armour and aviation. I am advised that these additions would add substantial and immediate support capability to our soldiers in Afghanistan. These additions would require the deployment of a further 360 personnel.

We believe that the government should give consideration to the deployment of other more substantial assets, and I will set out what I believe the government should give careful consideration to. Firstly, a squadron (minus) of Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters. Specifically, this would result in four to six Tiger helicopters being deployed with two to four on line at any one time. This proposal would involve approximately 100 additional personnel. At present this helicopter has not been certified by the airworthiness authority. The delay in certification revolves around the availability and effectiveness of night-vision goggles. The armed reconnaissance helicopter is otherwise ready for combat. The French currently have between four and six of these aircraft in Afghanistan and they are providing excellent results and support. I point out that the Dutch deployed six Apache attack helicopters when they were in this province.

Next I would suggest to the government that they give serious consideration, if the 6RAR mortar platoon with six 81-millimetre mortars is stretched, to deploying another mortar platoon from an infantry battalion to augment them. This would involve approximately 30 additional personnel. Next I would refer to the fact that an administrative delay has deferred the acquisition of self-propelled artillery. Towed guns such as a battery of 155 millimetres could be deployed. This would involve a further approximately 100 personnel. Extra engineers from 2CER Combat Engineer Regiment would be deployed to augment the current overstretched combat engineers in the field, as we understand them to be. An extra troop would be approximately 30 personnel. Given the duration of this recent contact—that is, lasting 3½ hours—serious consideration must be given to deploying six M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks from 1st Armoured Regiment. This would involve approximately 40 to 50 personnel.

I do not make these suggestions lightly. I make them because this is a very serious, important matter. When we have people in the front line saying that they are short on ammunition, short on support and that the planning and availability of artillery, mortars and aviation support is not available, we have a significant problem that needs to be addressed.

We have virtually been in limbo from a defence ministerial perspective during the past month. Former Minister Faulkner constructively resigned prior to the election but the government announced his successor only two weeks ago. This has clearly created a situation that is not optimal for constant and thorough analysis of the on-ground situation from a policy perspective. I say, therefore, to the minister that urgent analysis and response is needed and that he must fully answer all of the questions that are contained within the soldier’s email which recent events in Afghanistan have raised. I could not stress more strongly that this is a very important issue. We cannot have an assertion that our front-line fighting soldiers are inadequately supported and are short on the vital necessities of conducting this campaign. Unfortunately, circumstances being as they are, the government has not responded in a proper, adequate or complete fashion to these allegations. I put the minister on notice that he needs to respond to these matters and he needs to provide the support that these soldiers have been asking for before things become much more serious than they currently are.