Senator Raff Ciccone – Estimates questions regarding the ADF’s role in evacuations from the Middle East following the 7 October attacks

Photo of Senator Raff Ciccone
October 25, 2023

I understand the Deputy Prime Minister this morning announced additional details in relation to that operation, and I appreciate you might be limited in what you can say, but, to the extent that you can, could you and any other officers provide further details, in addition to your opening statement, about what the ADF is doing?

CHAIR: Okay. Good morning, Mr Moriarty, secretary of the department. Do you have an opening statement that you’d like to make this morning?

Mr Moriarty : I do, thank you. Chair and senators, yesterday marked six months since the release of the Defence Strategic Review, and it’s timely that I provide the committee with an update on this work. On 1 July, the government established the Australian Submarine Agency within the defence portfolio, to manage the delivery of conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine capability. Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States are collaborating closely to ensure the design of SSN-AUKUS, leverages the best technology to deliver a world-class submarine. This will deliver a critical capability for Australia and bolster trilateral industrial cooperation.

Also on 1 July, the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator, or ASCA, commenced operations. ASCA will deliver advanced technologies supporting Australia’s contributions to AUKUS advanced capabilities. ASCA launched its first innovation incubation challenge on 31 July, to build a sovereign, small uncrewed aerial system capability, and over 250 responses were received from industry.

The independent analysis of Navy’s surface combatant fleet was handed to government on 29 September. The team considered more than 63 submissions to inform its analysis; held an industry briefing in June, attended by representatives of 83 companies, and state and territory governments; and held more than 20 one-on-one sessions with industry.

We are adapting the Australian Army to Australia’s strategic circumstances. On 28 September, government announced changes to Army units, formations and locations to support Army to lift its capabilities, preparedness and projection. The DSR identified the need for greater coherency in cybermilitary information operations and space. The decision to move Defence Space Command and ICT Operations Division into the Joint Capabilities Group, alongside cyber, will enable a more integrated approach to the development and sustainment of space and cybercapabilities. The Chief Information Officer Group will focus on strategic foresight, technical agility and the delivery and sustainment of effects necessary for Defence’s mission.

Work is advancing on delivering the government’s commitment to establish the local manufacturing of guided weapons and to expand the domestic manufacture of explosive ordinance. On 6 October, the government announced a $220 million investment in domestic manufacture of munitions at factories at Mulwala and Benalla. Defence is working with our industry partners to deliver local production of HIMARS-compatible guided multiple launch rocket system—or GMLRS—missiles from 2025.

We have commenced a program of works to upgrade our network of northern bases, drawing on the budgeted commitment of $3.8 billion over the forward estimates. This includes $700 million for an Apache helicopter base in Townsville. At the same time, Defence is supporting the independent audit of the defence estate announced by government in August. This is another significant body of work that will ensure our estate and infrastructure is best positioned to support our operational and capability requirements.

These steps are just the beginning. Implementing the DSR will require a multiyear transformation of the defence enterprise, and this will have its challenges. First, the defence budget has been under pressure for some time. The impacts of supply chain disruptions are very tight. Labour market, heightened inflation and a depreciating Australian dollar place further pressure on Defence’s spending capacity and our buying power. It will take time and tough decisions to repair the defence financial position and ensure that only the highest priority investments are progressed. The government decision to allocate additional resourcing in contingency reserve over the planning decade will assist. This will be a substantial long-term effort to review defence expenditure, which will be undertaken in parallel to the rebuild of the Integrated Investment Program.

Second, growing a skilled workforce will be just as critical to achieving Defence’s mission. We are focused on the welfare of serving and former members of the ADF, and to fully supporting the ongoing work of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. Lieutenant General Natasha Fox has commenced as the inaugural Chief of Personnel, working alongside the Deputy Secretary, Defence People, to transform the defence people system. The Minister for Defence Personnel has launched ADF Careers as a key element of the journey towards a modernised ADF recruitment system. The government is investing $395 million in a pilot ADF continuation bonus to increase the number of junior ranks committing to an additional three years of service. This will address structural pressures within ADF middle ranks.

To attract and retain the best talent, we recognise that we must continue to shape and evolve our culture. We are also strengthening our APS workforce and reducing our reliance on external labour. Defence is increasing the proportion of work undertaken by public servants and is investing in the professionalism of our APS workforce. Defence has taken steps to reduce our use of ‘above the line’ contractors by 2,000 by December 2024. We have already achieved a net reduction of 908 contractors, based on our September 2023 external workforce census.

As the organisation prioritises reform and transformation to meet DSR intent, we also remain focused on delivering on our international partnerships and exercise program. Australia’s alliance with the United States remains fundamental to our security. AUSMIN reaffirmed a shared commitment to operationalise the alliance, including through enhanced force posture cooperation.

In the region, Defence welcomed the first international deployment of two Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-35s to Australia, marking the inaugural application of the reciprocal access agreement. We also marked 30 years of flight training of the Republic of Singapore Air Force at RAAF Base Pearce, demonstrating our longstanding partnership that continues to grow with the Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative.

Australia’s flagship regional engagement activity, Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2023, commenced with joint maritime interoperability training between a RAAF P-8A Poseidon and an Indian Navy P-8I Neptune in India. We hosted Exercise Malabar for the first time—a premier Indo-Pacific naval activity which brought together partners from India, Japan and the United States. We’ve also held the longest, largest ever iteration of Exercise Talisman Sabre this year, involving 13 nations and more than 34,000 military personnel. This included, for the first time, integrating soldiers from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga. We continue to support Ukraine. Australia’s total military assistance to Ukraine now comes to $730 million, including the additional $20 million package announced by government today.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the tragic events in the Middle East over recent weeks. The brutal assault on Israeli civilians by Hamas illustrates that strategic surprise is an enduring feature of our world. It also underscores the urgency with which Defence is implementing reform under the DSR to ensure we can deliver to government and, through it, to the Australian people an ADF that is fit for purpose in a more precarious strategic era.

On indulgence, I’d also like to make a short clarification about the proceedings today in relation to the Australian Submarine Agency. As I mentioned, on 1 July the government established the Australian Submarine Agency by executive order as a non-corporate Commonwealth entity. It is responsible and accountable for the delivery of the nuclear-powered submarine program. Today, the Australian Submarine Agency will appear before the committee for the first time. To assist the committee in directing questions about Australia’s submarine capability and the nuclear-powered submarine program to the relevant department or agency, I’d like to advise that matters relating to the following might appropriately be directed to Defence: Australia’s current submarine capability; management of the Defence estate, including relevant ports; defence industry workforce development; establishment of the new statutory agency involved in regulating the nuclear-powered submarine enterprise; AUKUS Pillar II and advanced capabilities; and legislation related to export controls.

Matters relating to the following would be most appropriately directed to the Australian Submarine Agency: all aspects related to the delivery of the nuclear-powered submarine program; US legislation related to the Virginia class submarines; and workforce development related to the nuclear-powered submarine program. I’d also like to inform the committee that Vice Admiral Mead tested positive for COVID today and will be unable to appear before the committee, but the Submarine Agency will be represented by senior officers to provide evidence to the committee.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Moriarty. What a day to be off with COVID! General Campbell, would you like to make an opening statement?

Gen. Campbell : I would. Thanks for the opportunity to make this statement. I wish to address two issues: the first is the loss of our people in the MRH-90 accident in July this year, and the second is to briefly comment upon Operation Beech, the assistance to evacuating Australian and other designated foreign nationals from the Middle East.

On 28 July this year, four Australian aviators from the 6th Aviation Regiment were participating in a night-time training activity during Exercise Talisman Sabre. When the MRH-90 Taipan helicopter they were flying impacted waters near Lindeman Island in Queensland, Captain Danniel Lyon, Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Warrant Officer Class 2 Joseph Phillip Laycock and Corporal Alexander Naggs sadly lost their lives that night. On behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I again wish to extend my sincere condolences and prayers to their families, friends and colleagues, who’ve been deeply affected by this incident, which is a stark reminder of the risks that accompany military service. I’d also like to acknowledge the Defence members, emergency services personnel, our international defence partners, civilian agencies and the local community for their assistance with our search and recovery efforts—operations conducted in a very challenging maritime environment.

On the following day, Defence instituted a cessation of all MRH-90 flight operations, and on 29 September this year the Australian government announced that the Australian Defence Force’s MRH-90 fleet would not return to flying operations. There are currently four ongoing investigations into the July incident. The Defence Flight Safety Bureau, the Queensland coroner, Comcare and the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force are carrying out these investigations, each of which have their relevant statutory authorities and responsibilities. Defence is committed to supporting all of these investigations. I won’t be able to comment or speculate on possible causes of the incident, and the government’s decision for the MRH-90 fleet to no longer fly does not suggest the outcome of any of these investigations. It’s important that incident investigations are allowed to pursue all lines of inquiry, and I’m advised that this may take up to 12 months or more to complete.

The Australian Defence Force continues to provide a ready aviation capability through a fleet of aircraft, including our CH-47F Chinook helicopters, Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters and MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. The cessation of the flying of the MH-90 Taipan impacts our overall operational helicopter capability, which we are working to remediate. The Chief of Army can speak further on this if senators wish. As a priority, we’re focused on introducing into service our new fleet of 40 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to replace the MH-90 fleet. In September, the first three Black Hawks commenced flying operations in Australia, and the remaining Black Hawks will be delivered over the coming years.

Turning to the ongoing situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, I’d like to provide an update on Operation Beech, Australia’s contribution to the DFAT led whole-of-government response. Defence deployed all Australian Air Force aircraft and ADF personnel to assist Australians wishing to leave Israel. These flights commenced on 15 October. As of 24 October, the ADF has assisted 394 Australians and their families and other approved foreign nationals on five flights from Tel Aviv to Dubai and one flight carrying 97 Australians and approved foreign nationals from Dubai to Perth. Royal Australian Air Force aircraft and ADF personnel remain available to support these efforts. Defence personnel serving in the region assigned to Operation Paladin, Operation Mazurka and Operation Fortitude have been accounted for and are currently in safe locations.

CHAIR: Thanks for that opening statement. I’ve just got a few questions I want to start off with before I hand over to the opposition. You mentioned ADF support to evacuate the Australians and citizens of partner nations from Israel. I want to thank you and your personnel for your efforts. I understand the Deputy Prime Minister this morning announced additional details in relation to that operation, and I appreciate you might be limited in what you can say, but, to the extent that you can, could you and any other officers provide further details, in addition to your opening statement, about what the ADF is doing?

Gen. Campbell : Yes. I’ll make a couple of comments and then turn to Air Vice-Marshal Chappell. We are working in complement with and in support of a wider Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade consular responsibility to provide assistance to Australian citizens and designated foreign nationals, of which there are many in Israel and in the wider Middle East region. Our work there is in terms of seeking to assist people to depart. I’m conscious that, through the good efforts of the whole-of-government work supported by Defence and led by DFAT, we’ve seen people leave that region and, in particular, Israel through regular public transport international air travel, through contracted flights and through the Australian Defence Force RAAF flights that I mentioned.

This morning the Deputy Prime Minister noted that we were seeking to have three RAAF aircraft and supporting personnel available to undertake evacuation operations where needed. These are activities that are done in a non-contested setting—working with nations in the region, with international partners who similarly may have their own nationals wishing to depart the region—and it’s very much a process at the moment of contingency planning and positioning rather than moving beyond what we have already committed to, which is the assistance as requested to the evacuation of personnel from Tel Aviv. I’ll just ask Air Vice-Marshal Chappell if he might wish to add any further details.

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : General Campbell’s answers summarise the situation. This prepositioning has come about through the request from the foreign minister, as part of the DFAT led whole-of-government response. As General Campbell has stated, it is a precautionary and prudent prepositioning of assets and capabilities to assist future eventualities.

CHAIR: General, I don’t know if you’re able to provide any other updates but do you have an indicative time frame for when you expect to have personnel over there?

Gen. Campbell : I think it is uncertain at the moment. The conflict we see between Israel and Hamas appears to be in its early stages. We want to be well positioned, so I can’t characterise it in time yet. But I would very much encourage Australians to follow DFAT’s advisories in regard to travel and to pay attention to their safety.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

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