Press Conference: Defence and Industry Engagement on Collaboration on Counter Improvised Explosive Devices for Afghanistan

MINISTER ANDREWS

It’s great to be here at Defence Headquarters this morning. I’m particularly proud to have with me the Ambassador from Afghanistan to Australia, His Excellency Andisha, my parliamentary colleagues, Lynda Reynolds and Andrew Nikolic, who both served in senior positions in the Australian Army, also Brigadier Shanahan.

I especially welcome Australian industry partners that have collaborated with Defence and our Afghan partners to manufacture first-of-a-kind counter improvised explosive device equipment for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

I would like to welcome representatives from Australian defence companies, Micreo; Ultra Electronics Australia; Associated Electronic Services; AXIOM Precision Manufacturing; and Lintek.

All of these companies, whose representatives are here with us this morning, have worked in close partnership with Defence to produce this potentially lifesaving equipment.

This work is a great example of Australian industry and Defence collaboration, entrepreneurship and innovation to deliver a solution that helps address the threat of IEDs.

Delivery of this equipment to Afghanistan commenced in January, thanks to defence industry partners supporting an accelerated production schedule.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are now deploying this equipment in the current fighting season, their first without significant Coalition support.

Improvised explosive devices represent a significant and immediate threat in Afghanistan, and indeed in other theatres.

This is why Australia is very pleased to be able to provide these force protection systems to the Afghan Forces as they work to ensure the security of the Afghan people.

On a daily basis, this equipment is building their confidence and capacity to deliver security outcomes for their communities.

The REDWING program has been responsible for these solutions and I would like to congratulate everyone who has been involved in this program from Defence, from industry and from the research and technology arms as well for developing these systems.

These force protection systems are low‑cost, robust and lightweight.

This makes them particularly applicable for use in austere operating environments by military and police units as they require minimal operator training, and limited logistic support.

Alongside the provision of this equipment, Australia has provided training to Afghan personnel on-the-ground, as they put the equipment to use.

This has ensured that the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Force have a sustainable capability which is purpose suited to its operations.

Beyond operational benefits for the Afghans, a further positive outcome is the $50 million investment into the Australian defence manufacturing industry which has occurred as a result of this important project.

On that note, can I invite His Excellency, the Afghan Ambassador, to say a few words.

AMBASSADOR:

Thank you very much Minister.

Let me take this opportunity, Minister, to extend my thanks to all ADF personnel who have served in Afghanistan in the past and those nearly 400 soldiers who are currently serving in my country. Also allow me to pay my respects to the families and loved ones of those soldiers, who fought shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan Security Forces and together they paid the ultimate price.

The ADF have really contributed to security, training and mentoring of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, especially 4 Brigade, building schools, clinics, roads and signs in Uruzgan. I witnessed first hand, the difference that you have made there. And now that the security responsibilities have been transferred to the Afghan Security Forces it is our job to build on your good work. However, as we all know, since the transition in 2014, the security threats posed by terrorists and violent extremists did not subside, but unfortunately dramatically increased and spread across the region. This year, the Taliban has launched vicious attacks on military and civilian targets in Afghanistan in spring offensives. Hundreds of Al Qaeda affiliated foreign fighters have entered the country, across the boarder from Pakistan, and more violent, younger radicals have pronounced their allegiances to ISIL. In such an environment, the announcement of the delivery of counter-IED equipment comes as a timely demonstration of Australia’s continued security assistance to Afghanistan.

This equipment, which was funded by the Australian Government, through the military contribution the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which was pledged in Chicago in a Summit in 2012 and manufactured by Australian Defence industry, will certainly save the lives of our security forces, increase their mobility and take away the effectiveness of our enemies weapons – the roadside IEDs.

I was told that this equipment was tested by the Afghan National Security Forces in the field and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces was very happy with the result. Congratulations.

Friends and Colleagues, I want to emphasise that together with of air support and air combat capabilities, counter-IEDs have been a real challenge to Afghan National Security Forces and I am certain that this is a very welcome

As always, Defence and security cooperation between our two nations remains an important part of our bilateral relations.

I am very confident that together we can strengthen the security and well-being of our people and contribute to global security.

BRIGADIER SHANAHAN

Thank you Minister, ladies and gentlemen. I have been in charge of the task force for a year, and prior to that I was senior adviser to General if the 5th Corp in Southern Afghanistan.

I’ve also had the fortunate experience of meeting the majority of the companies involved in this initiative, so for me this is a very personal and very rewarding project. Really what I have seen from this project is it has been an excellent cooperation between DSTO, between the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, between the Australian Civilian-Military Centre, as well DMO and Industry. This is having major impact on real people and soldiers in Afghanistan. The requirement was for a simple, robust and light-weight effective system for both mounted and dismounted soldiers. DSTO was given the requirement to develop a prototype against extremely tight timeframes, however, a key part of it was also to engage with the Afghan Security Forces to make sure that what we were developing was something that was relevant and effective for the Afghan Security Forces, who would be using it in action.

There was also an excellent response by industry to deliver, at very, very short notice at the end of last year, the actual products that are no being delivered and used in Afghanistan. The reality on the ground, casualties to the Afghan police and Afghan corps, were significant, so something like this makes a real difference. Also, with the Afghans in the lead from early 2013, they were becoming more and more involved with planned and executing the operations, so it is a significant step forward. So from my perspective, a very important and key role to protecting our partners who are conducting the operations as well as the Australian forces over there mentoring them. My final points are, it was an excellent strategy that we developed. Close collaborating with Industry, amongst Defence and with the Afghan Security Forces and it is really making a big difference to those who matter – which is those people who are in harms way.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Any questions about this particular project?

QUESTION:

Can we ask more generally about the situation in Afghanistan. There have been reports that Australia’s work on Uruzgan province has been lost since the withdrawal of forces. Can you update us on the situation there and perhaps we could ask the Ambassador for his view as well.

MINISTER ANDREWS

I will let the Ambassador add if he wishes to, but from our perspective obviously there is fluidity in Afghanistan at the present time, but actually we are confident that the work we’ve done remains in place. We still have personnel in Afghanistan and will have for some time. Our task at the moment is to ensure that we offer all the assistance and training we can to the Afghan Forces and this is a great example of us being able to add to their capability to be able to continue to take up the fight to the Taliban. Overall we are confident that the work that was done over a long period of ten years, this was the longest, most significant deployment in terms of a military operation ever in Australia’s history, a decade there. Indeed I have my colleague Andrew Nikolic here who was one of the first people on the first deployment to go to Afghanistan. So it has been a significant contribution by Australia. We believe that advantages and positive benefits of that contribution are well established in Afghanistan. I will ask the Ambassador if would like to say a few words.

AMBASSADOR:

The violence that we are experiencing in Uruzgan right now, is part of the overall access and influence of the Taliban, especially when they have this illusion that since the International Security Forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan in great numbers the Taliban will be able to capture some of the areas which they have lost. They have fortunately not been able to have any major achievements there. In fact, the day before yesterday, we have a high-level government General of local government directorate went there, to Uruzgan, to talk to the populations, to sort out some of the issues which have been there and introduce a new Commander of Police for that province. So I think it is not something very specific to Urzghan, what’s happening. This is basically a spring offensive. I think 2015 is a test for our Government. But so far, thankfully, we have been successful.

QUESTION:

Minister, on another issue, are you concerns that Australian Navy personnel are being put in a difficult situation with Australian agencies making payments to people smugglers to go back to Indonesia?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well before I come to that, are there any other questions on this project first? Because if there are other things I might has the Ambassador and the Brigadier not to get themselves tied up with domestic political issues. So are there any more questions on this project?

QUESTION

I just wanted to ask if there was potential for this equipment to be in Iraq and in Syria?

MINISTER ANDREWS

This is very significant equipment which will obviously have applications elsewhere, because the nature of the threat of improvised explosive devises is not simply confined to what might happen in Afghanistan at the present time. So yes we see this as a potential and it is great that that cooperation between defence, between DSTO and between industry groups represented here today to provide a piece of equipment which has wonderful benefits. I mean the concern of, I suppose, ordinary Australians – those who have family members who are overseas and those who are just concerned about the safety of our forces overseas, is to ensure wherever possible their safety, this is a pretty significant development and gives us some more assurance that in the face of these sorts of threats, wherever they might occur, we can develop the equipment that will counter them.

Any more questions on this? If not I will thanks the Ambassador and the others and take some questions now.

QUESTION

Are you concerned that Navy personnel are being put in a difficult situation with Australian agencies making payments to people smugglers to go back to Indonesia?

MINISTER ANDREWS

It is the intention of this government to stop the boats. We have stopped the boats. And that’s something which the Australian people support. As to any operational matters, we don’t comment on them. Our aim is to stop the boats and there are a variety of measures to, such as turn-backs, such as the protection visas scheme, and that has been successful.

QUESTION

It must be a worry though, that people smugglers may send their vessels to find our Australian Navy ships, knowing that they could get thousands of dollars to go back.

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well, one of the reasons why we often don’t comment on operational matters is that we are not going to signal or telegraph to people smugglers any action that we may or may not take. I’m not commenting at all upon the matters that have been in the media. I’m simply saying that, as a matter of policy, we do not comment on operational matters. And one of the reasons we don’t comment on operational matters is we’re not going to telegraph anything we may or may not be doing to the people smugglers.

QUESTION

Are payments of this type legal?

MINISTER ANDREWS

There is an assumption in your question that payments are being made and I’m not going to comment on that.

QUESTION

If payments are being made, is it possible for defence force personnel to offer payments?

MINISTER ANDREWS

As far as I am aware, this is not arising in relation to defence force personnel. As to the legality of what is being alleged, that will be a matter for the Attorney-General.

QUESTION

So thousands of dollars aren’t being stored on Navy ships, at all?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Again, it’s a nice rabbit hole you want to go down but I’m not following you.

QUESTION

Would you be aware, as Minister, if these payments were occurring?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Again, I’m not going down that rabbit hole. Any other questions?

QUESTION:

Can I just ask on Iraq briefly, you were saying last week that there are no plans to send any more troops there, the Prime Minister has sort of indicated that we’re talking with Allies about it, can you just clarify what could our future role be going forward?

MINISTER ANDREWS

Well that question is very hypothetical. We’ve got a significant deployment to Iraq at the present time. We have about 170 of our Special Forces at the airport compound at Bagdad where we are training Iraqi Special Forces. We have about another 300 at Taji at the airbase there. And they are training the regular forces and early indications are that that has been going quite well.

And then in addition to that we have we have a very significant air presence over Iraq, flying out of the UAE. So that combination of personnel is a very significant contribution to Iraq. We are there at the invitation of the Government of Iraq. We also monitor that deployment on a regular basis, but as I said in the last few days, there are no current plans to increase the number of deployed personnel in Iraq and we would only do so at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, if that were to arise in the future.

QUESTION:

Do you think the Obama administration has the best strategy in place for defeating ISIS?

MINISTER ANDREWS

A conflict like this is fluid. Anybody who takes the view that ISIS can simply be defeated within a few weeks or a few months is underestimating what we are dealing with. This is a very significant military force that we are dealing with so far as ISIS is concerned. They have shown over the month that they have been operational in the field that they are flexible and adaptive to the situation they are facing, and therefore we must be flexible and adaptive to that conflict as well. This is an ongoing conflict. As you know, our commitment to the training force in Taji is for a period of two years. We will review that formally after one year, but we are actually reviewing it on an ongoing basis and we will see what it looks like in a years time, and if necessary in two years time. But there’s not a short time solution in Iraq. This is something that is going to take months, or even years, and we will make that assessment as we go along.

QUESTION

The Government has said that Iraq hasn’t requested Australia provide any further assistance in terms of an accompaniment role, has that been offered to the Iraqi Government, is it on offer?

MINISTER ANDREWS

No, our role there is quite clear and that role is inside the wire – to use the expression – so what we are doing in terms of ground forces, is training special forces a the airport compound at Baghdad and we are training regular forces at Taji. The only significant role beyond that is our Air Force role in obviously our Air Force role. We have six Hornets there at the moment, we have an air refueller and we have the Wedgetail, other command and control aircraft. They are working obviously in conjunction with other allied air forces. Notably the United States is involved in Iraq and Syria, although our forces are only involved in Iraq. That is the extent of our involvement. We haven’t been invited to do anything beyond that at the present time. Increasing that presence would be at the invitation of the Government of Iraq and we have not had such an invitation.