Doorstop Interview at the Announcement of the E-7A Wedgetail Aircraft Full Operational Capability

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming out to RAAF Fairbairn base today. I’d like to acknowledge the Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Vice-Marshall Leo Davies, the Country President of Boeing here in Australia, Maureen Doherty and colleagues, my colleagues Senator Zed Seselja from the ACT and Natasha Griggs MP, Member for Solomon and President of the Defence Backbench Committee for the Coalition.

Today we’re here as you can see in the background, in relation to the Royal Australian Air Force’s fleet of six E-7A Wedgetail Aircraft and it’s a very significant day because they have achieved their final operational capability which gives us one of the most capable battle space management aircraft in the world. The aircraft reached the milestone this month with the entire capability, from physical aircraft to logistics, management, sustainment, facilities and training, now fully operational and able to support ongoing operations.

In fact we were quite confident of reaching this milestone because these aircraft have been operating in Iraq for the last few months. They’ve been deployed on Operation Okra in the Middle East and in fact they’ve done over 100 surveillance sorties with our Coalition partners flying over 1,200 hours and indeed on two of these sorties, these aircraft flew more than 16 hours which is a very significant achievement in itself.

What they’ve done is provide coordination and flight safety capability also in other areas of operation, most notably in assistance in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. So these aircraft significantly enhance the effectiveness of our existing naval, army and air force and civil surveillance agencies.

They help to maintain the advanced technological capacity that we have in this country. These aircraft have been tailored to meet the specific requirements of the Royal Australian Air Force with six Boeing 737 aircraft, as you’ve seen inside, modified to be able to undertake these very sophisticated missions.

They’re operated by Number 2 Squadron, from the RAAF Base at Williamtown in New South Wales, with additional deployment facilities at the RAAF base Tindal in the Northern Territory.

I’d like to congratulate the Air Force, particularly Number 2 Squadron, the Defence Materiel Organisation and the industry partner, Boeing, for the hard work over quite a number of years from the start of this idea to have this sort of aircraft available for Australia, to a point where we’ve now wedged the fully operational capability of the aircraft and not only done that in testing and in trials, but we’ve actually done it in reality and now in Operation Okra in the Middle East and on that note, I’d like to invite Leo Davies to say a few words.

AIR VICE-MARSHALL LEO DAVIES:

Minister, thank you very much. To Senator Seselja welcome, to the Member for Solomon welcome, to Maureen Doherty from Boeing, thank you very much for being here.

This is a very important occasion, reaching the full operational capability. We are here to tell a story. Ten or eleven years ago we did not have an airborne early warning and control aircraft and now we do and I would offer to you that it is one of the best airborne early warning and control capabilities in the world today.

It started out with, really, a thought that we needed to be able to have an integrated air capability, a picture that we could show to our fighters that we’ve grown much more from that now to having something that is controlling everything that flies and seeing a lot of these on the ground in the Middle East right now. So we’ve gone through a number of major exercises, we’ve proven the capability and that has been largely a team effort. It’s not just about the performance of the radar, it’s not about the performance of the systems on board, it is also about how much work the Royal Australian Air Force members have done to get the systems to work properly.

It has been an amazing advancement over a relatively short time and for us this has been a true part of what we now need to take forward as part of the Plan Jericho. It will be an important centrepiece for us as we get to integrate all of the capabilities that both Air Force and the rest of the ADF need for the future. Thank you very much.

MINISTER ANDREWS:

So any questions about the Wedgetail?

QUESTION:

The Wedgetail had serious problems…. Was there any remediation that had to be done after the plane was deployed to Iraq or in fine-tuning it?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

As far as technical questions are concerned, I’m going to defer to the Chief of the Air Force.

AIR VICE-MARSHALL LEO DAVIES:

Thanks Minister, five weeks premature but I’ll take that. (Laughter)

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Soon to be. (Laughter). I have great confidence in you!

AIR VICE-MARSHALL LEO DAVIES:

I’m sure this will get back to Geoff. The aircraft was taken off the Projects of Concern list in 2012 and that’s when we were at our initial operating capability. Since then it has been a very smooth trajectory to FOC. In terms of having to make adaptations to go to operations, there were none.

QUESTION:

Air Vice-Marshall, you mentioned full operational capability, can you tell us a little bit more about what that will look like in the future? What else will it be able to do?

AIR VICE-MARSHALL LEO DAVIES:

I think we’re at full operational capability now for the aircraft…

QUESTION:

Sorry, final operational capability…

AIR VICE-MARSHALL LEO DAVIES:

… but final. Ladies and Gentlemen, I sort of describe this a little bit perhaps like having an operating system for an iPhone or an Android. The operating system is this airplane but we’re not finished yet. This could be an iPhone 4 or an iPhone 5; we’ve got 6, 7, 8 and 9 to come. It’s been a really important piece of how we’ve evolved this aircraft and the systems on board but it still has more to deliver yet.

QUESTION:

Minster in relation, can I ask another question?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

If there’s no other questions about the Wedgetail, I think in fairness to the Deputy Chief of the Air Force then I’ll let him step away and if there’s any other questions I can then answer them. No others on the Wedgetail? Yes.

QUESTION:

Minister, with the situation in Iraq and Syria looking quite dire at the moment, do you rule out increasing Australia’s military involvement in that region?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Can I make a few points? Firstly, we have already got a very significant involvement I Iraq. If you combine the 300 or so forces we have at Taji on the Building Partner Capacity mission, along with the Special Forces that are in Baghdad on the Advise and Assist mission, the Air Force contribution to that, then we’ve already got a very significant presence in or over Iraq.

Secondly we are there at the invitation of the Iraqi Government and we’d obviously continue to consult them about the situation there. Can I say in relation to Ramadi, in degrading ISIL or Daesh, there will be ups and downs. The idea that we are fighting some amateurish force that doesn’t have proper command and control structures, the idea that there is not something quite formidable in terms of Daesh, would be simply to underestimate what is involved in this and so there will be ups and downs so far as this is concerned and we will continue to review that. We will have a formal review after 12 months in terms of the force that’s gone to Taji and as you know we’ve made an initial deployment there for two years.

QUESTION:

The Americans, the senior American officials have questioned the will of the Iraqi troops to fight. If the Iraqi troops don’t want to fight, why are we fighting – why are we…

MINISTER ANDREWS:

…Well, let me make the first point and that is that our role there is both in terms of building the capacity of the Iraqi regular forces and in terms of our Special Forces, in building the capacity of their equivalent in Iraq, so we are not out on the ground, we are not beyond the wire fighting in Iraq. Yes we do have some more direct operational involvement so far as the Air Force is concerned, but that’s the limit to it at this stage.

Now, as I said, this is a longer term issue. We will continue our discussions as we do and we have done in the past on an ongoing basis with both the government of Iraq and any other allied members of the Coalition that are there, which includes the United States and when I’m in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue this weekend I will be meeting with the US Secretary for Defence Ash Carter and obviously we’ll have further discussions about the issue.

QUESTION:

Minister, you said ‘at this stage’, do you envisage a time when you may have to go beyond the wire?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

No I don’t. I’m simply using the expression ‘at this stage’ to say that’s where we are at the present time. As I said, we will continue to review the deployment that we’ve made to Iraq but it is a very significant deployment at this stage. It is limited and we’re there at the invitation of the government of Iraq. Obviously we will continue as we’ve done for the past weeks and months to have discussions about our role there.

QUESTION:

Minister, Dr Carter said the other day that the Iraqis don’t have the will to fight. Was he correct in saying that?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Look, I read the observations that were made by Secretary for Defence Carter. I’ve read other observations also. Quite clearly, our role there is to help to train the Iraqi forces an that’s why we’re there and the quality or standard of the Iraqi forces varies greatly, as you would expect in a country such as that, and we will continue to monitor the outcomes from our mission in terms of training them as the weeks and months go by.

QUESTION:

Do you agree with him?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Look as I said, the quality and the standard of the Iraqi forces varies greatly. Our task there is to bring that standard or quality to a level where they can be effective. In the end this is a fight by the legitimate government of Iraq for their nation, Iraq.

QUESTION:

Do you have plans to replace the fleet (inaudible)?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Look at this stage all of those things are in consideration. The whole fleet is an involving matter in terms of what planes we have. Every plane has a lifespan and we will continue to consider all of those matters whether its strike fighters for the future, whether its planes like this very impressive Wedgetail. Re-fuelers, as you know, we’ve ordered a couple more of the C-17s because they’re such a useful aircraft and they’re coming to the end of their production. We continue to monitor the fleet of the Air Force regardless of what capacity and what they do. Thank you.