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Transcript of Press Conference by the Minister for Defence at the announcement of the Black Hawk helicopter: Randwick Barracks, Sydney: 171 Squadron relocation, submarines.\n



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TRANSCRIPT SENATOR THE HON ROBERT HILL Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate

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PRESS CONFERENCE FOR BLACK HAWK HELICOPTER ANNOUNCEMENT

Randwick Barracks, Sydney, NSW

12.45pm, Saturday 30 July 2005

E&oe___________________________________171 Squadron relocation, submarines

Senator Hill:

Thanks for coming along. What we want to do today is provide details of the Government’s decision to relocate a Black Hawk squadron, 171 squadron from Townsville down to Sydney, where they’ll be based at Holsworthy. The decision the Government’s taken is to further boost the capability of our Special Forces on the East Coast of Australia.

As you know over the last few years we’ve been building capability, establishing a tactical assault group here in Sydney, at Holsworthy, together with our Incident Response Unit, which deals with threats associated with nuclear, radiological or biological materials. We’ve established the Special Forces Operational Command here at Holsworthy as well, and to further build that capability we made the decision on advice of the Defence Force that we should co-locate the squadron of the Black Hawk helicopters. That will mean 12 helicopters being located here in Sydney, about 200 personnel will be involved in the transfer, and they will be relocated here approximately at the end of next year.

In the meantime we will rotate Black Hawks to Holsworthy on a more regular basis, with the objective of always having some helicopter capability here in support of the Special Forces. The reason obviously is that co-locating forces with their means of transport, enhances both training capability and operational capability, and therefore when we look at our capacity to respond to a terrorist threat on the East Coast of Australia, with a military force, we think that we’ll be better equipped to meet that challenge.

Counter-terrorism capabilities are very important, and it’s been the area, I guess, of greatest growth in the ADF in recent years. Having the method of transport, the very capable Black Hawk helicopters and their crews here with our special forces, as I said, we believe will be a quantum leap in the capability of counter-terrorism on the East Coast of Australia.

Any questions?

Journalist:

What specifically sparked the decision to relocate?

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Senator Hill:

We’ve foreshadowed it for some time, it’s been an objective, the decision to purchase an extra squadron of helicopters has made it easier, because it means that the new MRH 90 helicopter which actually carries a larger load of troops, will be located in Townsville to replace these Black Hawks. So the building up of helicopter numbers gives us the flexibility to relocate one squadron of the helicopters specifically to work alongside Special Forces, rather than to be located at Townsville with the other squadrons.

Journalist:

Was the decision to relocate affected or fast tracked at all because of the recent London bombings?

Senator Hill:

No, not because of the London bombings, but we have brought it forward a little. Originally the intention was that the switch would occur at the time that the new MRH 90 helicopter came into operation, it’ll now be about a year ahead of that. So it’s consistent with the continual growth in Special Forces capabilities on the East Coast of Australia. A few years ago it was a capability that didn’t really exist, Special Forces focus was always in Western Australia. But as the threat of terrorism has grown, so we’ve seen the need to respond, and this capability now on the East Coast of Australia, I think is second to none anywhere, and this will further enhance it.

Journalist:

How many Special Forces officers make up or will be assigned to the new facility?

Senator Hill:

Well, we’ve got the Fourth Commando Battalion, the headquarters, the specific specialist units out there, so I’m not sure what the total number is, but it’s some hundreds, and now of course an extra 200 personnel associated with the helicopter capability.

Journalist:

Does this move mean that the East Coast is particularly vulnerable to an attack?

Senator Hill:

I wouldn’t say particularly vulnerable, but obviously we have in mind major cities, there have been major cities that have been attacked over the last few years, obviously as I’ve just demonstrated a few minutes ago, from here you can get by this means of transport, our Special Forces to anywhere in the Sydney area in a matter of minutes. But it’s also about halfway between Brisbane and Melbourne, and closer to Canberra, so in terms of covering the major cities on the East Coast, we will be better equipped to do so.

Journalist:

What other additional security or counter-terrorism issues are being considered by the Federal Cabinet’s National Security Committee, and is it likely to finalise that soon, as soon as next week?

Senator Hill:

Well, the Prime Minister has said that we will look at even further enhancing our legal structures and our operational capabilities. Whilst I think in some ways there’s been significant progress made in the fight against terror, it was always

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going to be a long term challenge, and our laws have been significantly updated in the last couple of years, we will now consider whether they need further change. And that’s an issue on the table at the moment, being contributed to by a number of different ministers, and particularly the Attorney-General. I don’t think the

Prime Minister’s set a timetable, other than it’ll be looked at in the near future.

Journalist:

Minister, are you considering moving the SAS to the East Coast as well?

Senator Hill:

No, no, they will stay in Perth.

Journalist:

Why is that?

Senator Hill:

Well, if I brought them to the East Coast you would then ask me how are we going to protect the West Coast [laughs]. They’ve traditionally been in the West Coast, and their role hasn’t traditionally been that of counter-terrorism, and so historically where they were located was not as important as it is now. So some years ago we made the decision to retain the SAS in Perth, and build a new capability, an additional capability on the East Coast of Australia, and that’s the one that we’ve been significantly growing in recent years, and the decision in relation to the helicopters is a further step to continue to build that capability.

So in terms of counter-terrorism it’s obviously difficult in a country like Australia, the geography doesn’t make that task easier, but it does seem to us to be a sound decision to move, as the threat scenario has changed, to move a helicopter capability closer to the areas of greatest concern, and one of the areas of greatest concern are the major cities up the East Coast.

Journalist:

This could be a tricky question, but...

Senator Hill:

Most of them are tricky.

Journalist:

What is our most elite force, in terms of counter-terrorism?

Senator Hill:

Well, the specialists would answer that, and they may say that it starts with the SAS, but 4RAR Commandos and the capability that we’ve built and are continuing to build on the East Coast, I think if you asked them, they would say that they can match what’s on the West Coast.

Journalist:

Minister, will all these aircraft be available to the rest of the ADF, or are they exclusively for the use of Special Forces?

Senator Hill:

Sorry?

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Journalist:

Will they be available to the rest of the ADF following the move, or are they allocated specifically just for the Special Forces?

Senator Hill:

Well, it would depend on the circumstances, but the idea is that they will be available to enhance our counter-terrorism capability, and therefore primarily Special Forces. We will also look at ways in which the aircraft themselves might be further enhanced in coming years. We haven’t had helicopters that have been dedicated to Special Forces in the past, and therefore some capabilities that you find on American Special Forces helicopters, for example, we don’t have. Another step, there’s always more steps, but another step will now be to look at whether these helicopters should be further enhanced with additional capabilities.

Journalist:

And where does the rest of the AIR9000 program stand at the moment? I understand it’s in limbo, phases two and four?

Senator Hill:

Well no, nothing’s in - phases two and four were always split, one was phase two...

Journalist:

But then they were merged together and then...

Senator Hill:

No, no, well some people said they were merged, but Government didn’t ever merge them. For those who are wondering what all this is about, one phase was to purchase an extra squadron of helicopters, and that decision has been taken, another phase is what they do with the Black Hawks, in terms of their whole of life extension, whether we engage - whether we extend their life through a major refurbishing, whether we replace them with another fleet of Black Hawks, or whether we replace them with further MRH 90s, and that’s the next phase, and that was due to be decided by Government in this coming financial year.

Journalist:

Are you sticking to that time frame?

Senator Hill:

Yes, we’re working to the timetable.

Journalist:

Minister, there are some reports today about the recent safety performance of the Collins Class Submarines, can you confirm these reports, and what does it say about the vessel, and its record as a whole?

Senator Hill:

Well, the vessels, the Collins Class are performing admirably, the operational work has been first class, their exercises have also been exceptional, they exercise in the most demanding circumstances against the Americans and others, and their performance has been, as I said, excellent. In terms of safety, safety is paramount. Our Navy is a very conservative organisation when it comes to safety, and it is a difficult environment, the underwater environment, and safety must be treated very seriously.

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So when incidents occur, they are recorded, they have a SUBSAFE system that analyses them, and where remedial action should be taken, it is taken. So the latest advice, after the articles that have occurred in The Australian in the last few days, I asked for further confirmation yesterday from Navy, and the advice of the Deputy Chief of the Navy is that the submarines are safe, which I already knew, and safety remains a first priority.

Journalist:

The do sound like major problems though, the fires and floods, it does sound pretty serious.

Senator Hill:

Well, the flood incident was a serious incident, there’s no doubt about that, and we didn’t disguise that at the time. There’s nothing much more serious in a submarine than a flood. But, the systems that were designed to save the submarine in those circumstances worked properly, and the crew performed admirably, so in terms of the training of the crew and the capability of the crew and the capability of the systems, they all worked as they were designed to work.

But as I said, it is a hazardous environment, we record incidents, a log is kept of operational experiences that may be a potential hazard in the future, they are reviewed on a regular basis by the SUBSAFE teams, and as I said, where remedial action needs to be taken, it’s taken.

Journalist:

You’re not concerned?

Senator Hill:

Well, that report is now three years old, and my advice is that all aspects of it that related to serious issues, have been addressed, so they may have been addressed in either material change to the submarines, or in operational ways, or in the training regime, but all potential hazardous activities are taken seriously, and [indistinct] against by Navy.

Journalist:

What about some teething problems when they were first rolled out?

Senator Hill:

Well, it is an aspect of a new capability, this is a new submarine, a SUBSAFE system was put in place at the time of construction of the submarine, because it was known that as the operational experience grows, there will be instances that they learn of potential hazards, that should be recorded and should be acted upon, so this is a management system to ensure that submarines are operated safely. My advice is that it’s taken seriously when potentially hazardous incidents are identified, they are acted upon and our first priority, as I said, remains the safety of the crew.

And can I just finish by thanking those who’ve participated and helped us today, the Special Forces from Holsworthy, and also the two Black Hawk air crews.

ENDS