Senator Varun Ghosh – Estimates questions relating to Australia’s supply of weapons to Israel

June 5, 2024

The government has made it very clear to date that Australia has not supplied weapons to Israel since this conflict began and for at least the past five years. May I confirm that answer with you?

Senator GHOSH: Thank you to the officials and officers at the table. My questions relate to Australia’s defence exports to Israel.

Mr Jeffrey : Defence export controls occur under my group.

Senator GHOSH: The government has made it very clear to date that Australia has not supplied weapons to Israel since this conflict began and for at least the past five years. May I confirm that answer with you?

Mr Jeffrey : That’s correct. Since the conflict begun, the government has been scrutinising defence exports, as you would expect. On the question around defence exports since the Hamas attack on Israel in October last year, Australia has not supplied weapons or ammunition to Israel during that time and, indeed, in the last five years. During that period, defence export permits that were issued were for items other than weapons or ammunition, and this goes to, for example, dual-use technologies and components, including those for ADF equipment that was being repaired.

Senator GHOSH: Are you able to describe or elaborate on the reasoning or basis for that position in relation to defence exports to Israel?

Mr Jeffrey : Obviously, as you know, the defence export control regime was established as a result of our being a signatory to international treaties which include the requirement to issue a permit for any good that is controlled—that is to say, on the Defence and Strategic Goods List. These are essentially goods and technologies that have a dual-use purpose. They have legitimate civilian application or commercial application, but they also could be used for military applications or for weapons systems or as standalone weapons. Defence is the body that issues those permits and makes those assessments for government decision.

In this case, obviously Australia has a defence industry relationship with Israel, and so, if there is a requirement to export an item to Israel, then that needs to get a permit from the Department of Defence. As you’ll be aware, the items that would require a permit are a range of things. I’ve already mentioned weapon systems, but it’s also dual-use technologies that would have military or civilian applications and, crucially, anything to do with ADF capability. A large share of our export permits relate to the acquisition of capability for the ADF.

Senator GHOSH: In Defence’s confirmation that Australia has not exported weapons to Israel since the conflict began and in fact for the last five years, are you able to tell me what the process was that Defence went through in order to provide that confirmation or to be certain about that conclusion?

Mr Jeffrey : Essentially, what we did is we looked through all of our export permits that were agreed over the past five years to ensure that what we were talking about was dual-use technologies and items that were for the ADF. Once we completed that process we provided advice to the government on that basis. The Defence Export Controls process requires, as I’ve mentioned, that any item that is being exported that is controlled has a permit. By and large, in general terms, Australia is not a defence industry supplier to Israel. We’re not a major defence exporter to Israel, but we do, obviously, ensure that we are controlling anything on the Defence and Strategic Goods List.

Senator GHOSH: You referred to ammunition as part of your earlier answer, so may I just confirm, when you say that there have been no weapons exports, that includes ammunition as well?

Mr Jeffrey : That’s correct.

Senator GHOSH: Are you able to provide any examples of the types of items that Defence has issued export permits for to Israel?

Mr Jeffrey : Since 2019, Australia’s issued around 247 permits that relate to Israel. Of those items, around 66 remain active. A certain proportion of those are in relation to ADF capability, as I’ve mentioned. These include the air warfare destroyer, Hunter class frigates, battlespace communication systems and the Hawkei protected mobility vehicle. These are all items that have required export permits in relation to Israel. The remaining elements of those permits range from parts and components to technology exports. This would include, for example, dual-use ICT hardware; software upgrades with legitimate commercial applications; and the return of equipment to original manufacturers for repair or overhaul, or just to Israel permanently. Other permits would, for example, relate to radios, electronic componentry and these sorts of things.

Senator GHOSH: At the last estimates, it was indicated that Defence had approved two export permits to Israel since the conflict had begun. Are you able to describe and provide any detail about those two export permits?

Mr Jeffrey : Since October last year, the government has agreed a number of new permits. That includes two that you refer to that have since expired. There have been another six permits to Israel. Those permits relate to the export of items used by the Australian Defence Force and law enforcement. Part of the purpose of our export control regime is to ensure timely support for ADF capability. So, in those instances, those permits relate to the supply of ADF capability. There was one permit that related to a non-lethal, non-military item that was being returned to Israel.

Senator GHOSH: There was a reference there to two categories: one was to two items and one was to six items. Which did the non-lethal item refer to?

Mr Jeffrey : In the first two, and those two permits have expired.

Senator GHOSH: May I unpack something that you said a few minutes ago in relation to ADF capability, as a category. What does that mean and what are the steps involved in that process?

Mr Jeffrey : I can ask my colleague David Nockels to go into the details but, essentially, as you know, any defence capability that we now produce involves a global supply chain. There is nothing that the ADF uses that is subject to industrial autarchic arrangements where it’s just produced in Australia. We will source components globally from suppliers. Where that requires us to seek an export permit to support that capability development, it needs to come through defence export controls. Mr Nockels can take you through any further detail.

Mr Nockels : As Mr Jeffrey said, there is a process. We are, through the Defence Trade Controls Act, obligated to follow that act. There are regulations related to that act. There is also the Customs Act and a number of regulations that flow under that. Essentially, what that asks us to do is to look at a number of criteria—there are 12 under the Customs Act—and to ensure that, when we look at the application for a permit, we hold it against those criteria and make a judgement on that. We will, depending on the nature of the permit application, perhaps engage with a range of agencies in the Commonwealth to assure ourselves that there’s no information that might be held somewhere in the Commonwealth that we need to know about in terms of that particular country or the company that is seeking the application. Then we would make that decision. The act—in terms of the Defence Trade Controls Act—has the delegation sitting within the department to issue those permits. We would, again, make that determination and issue against those regulations and the act. At a high level, that’s the process that we go through.

Senator GHOSH: Is it correct to say, then, in relation to that category of ADF capability permits, that they involve the export of an item to Israel that then returns to Australia for the purpose of use in the Australian Defence Force?

Mr Jeffrey : That’s correct. As I said, these are collaborative industrial activities, so that, if something is being manufactured in Israel for the ADF, it might require the export of an Australian sourced component for assembly in the destination country or, if it is a piece of capability that’s in use by the Australian Defence Force, it may require an export permit to be returned to the destination country for repair or overhaul, and then be returned to Australia after that.

Senator GHOSH: I think we’ve covered off on the two permits that were referred to at last estimates and, in fact, you’ve referred to the six permits that have been issued since the last estimates. Are you able to provide a description of, or any insight about, the nature of those permits and the types of items that they related to?

Mr Jeffrey : As you know, Senator, and as we have previously testified before this committee, we don’t go into the individual content of the permits themselves, but we have sought to push the envelope, if you like, on ensuring that we can explain the types of categories that we deal with in relation to export permits. We’ve also explained before that the existence of a permit is not the same as the fact of an export. It’s a permit to export, and whether or not something is exported after that depends on the exporter. The existence of a permit does not automatically equate to a military item or, indeed, a weapon. Rather, it is a permit for, as I’ve said, items on the controlled goods list. In this case, the permits that have been agreed by governments since the attack by Hamas in October last year—and, in particular, the six that you have been referring to, Senator—all relate to ADF capability. We have Mr Chris Deeble here, who is Deputy Secretary for Capability and Acquisition Group, and he can take you through the programs of record, if you wish, in relation to existing defence capability projects that involve collaboration with Israel.

Senator McAllister: I will ask Mr Deeble to do that. Senator, thanks for your questions. For clarity and to augment Mr Jeffrey’s evidence to you, I want to be very clear that these new export permits are for items used by Australian defence and law enforcement, and will return to Australia. If I can make a broader observation, we’ve had a number of discussions in this committee about the regime that’s in place in Australia. It’s a rigorous regime that’s designed to ensure that we can meet our international obligations, and it necessarily involves an assessment of changing risk profiles and the nature of a conflict on the ground. Self-evidently, the circumstances in the Middle East are changing and are quite challenging and have made it challenging for some of these assessments to take place. As the circumstances of that conflict have evolved, the government continues to calibrate the approach and the permits that have been issued have been issued for these items which are used by Australian defence and law enforcement.

We’re committed to preserving our capability. Some of that is manufactured and repaired by companies based in Israel. It’s in our interest to maintain that capability and so, in these circumstances, we do need to export items that support those capabilities back to their original manufacturer for construction, maintenance or repair before their being returned to Australia. So it’s in that context that these six permits have recently been approved. We are also scrutinising pre-existing export permits to Israel to ensure that they align with this calibrated approach.

Senator GHOSH: Thank you, Minister.

Senator McAllister: Mr Deeble may have a little bit to add. I’m conscious that you have limited time, but he may have something to add.

CHAIR: Another minute and then I’ve got to move the call along.

Senator GHOSH: If there is anything—

Mr Deeble : Most of the work that we’re doing with Israeli companies to support our capability is in the land domain. We have a number of projects that are in flight today—and have had previously in flight—that use Israeli technology. We do so because they provide world-leading and world-class capability, and we want to ensure that our soldiers, sailors and aviators get the best capability. That’s why we use the Israeli technology. The nature of the technology could be the Spike LR2 missile, which provides high lethality on the battlefield. It’s an anti-tank weapon. The turret for the LAND400 phase 3 infantry fighting vehicle is made by a company called Elbit. Israeli technology is very key in things like active protection systems and survivability of vehicles on the battlefield. We also use a number of their technology semiconductors in remote weapon stations. As I said, armoured protection systems, thermal imaging systems, transparent armour and concept materials, batteries and other areas that are very appropriate for our capability here in Australia. I will happily take it on notice and provide you with a more substantive list of those technologies.

Senator GHOSH: Thank you for the indulgence, Chair. I have one more question in this block. May I ask about a piece of information that’s appeared publicly and has been reported on? I’m referring here to the data that’s been published on the DFAT website that listed $1.5 million worth of exports to Israel in the category of arms and munitions. Are you able to explain what that data refers to and clarify that information in light of the answers you have given to this committee today?

Mr Nockels : The data that you’re referring to that’s been public, I think is the data that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade publishes on its website. I think it’s useful to understand where that data is drawn from, then I’ll talk to how we assure ourselves that, even though the headline is arms and ammunition, that is not the fact the case.

That data is collected by the Australian Border Force at the border. All exporters, as they export goods out of Australia, need to engage with the customs aspect of the Border Force, and they need to record what is leaving the country. That data is collected by the Australian Border Force. It’s then compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and they then provide that to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who then publish it on their website.

In order for ABF and the ABS to compile those statistics, they ask the exporter to indicate under what category that export might fall. As you would expect in that sort of system, there is a dropdown menu and somebody ticks on that. When it comes to things that are related to the Defence and Strategic Goods List, the DSGL, which is what we in Defence look after under the Defence Trade Controls Act, companies tend to move to arms and ammunition, because there’s nothing that specifically talks to dual-use technology or whether it’s on the Defence and Strategic Goods List. That’s why they tick that box. That is why, when it appears on the DFAT website, it appears as arms and ammunition.

What we have done in Defence is cross-reference the data that the Australian Border Force has collected at the border with our data, in terms of our permits. We have assured ourselves that what has been publicly put forward in the media is in fact incorrect and that it is not arms and ammunition; it is in fact related to what Mr Jeffrey just talked about. It is in fact goods and technologies that normally would flow. In particular, the most recent figure that has been referred to as $1.5 million is for a single item that is a return to Australia item that falls under the category of what we’ve just been talking about, in that it supports Australian defence capability.

Senator McAllister: For clarity, as I understand it, it is a single item used by the ADF, and that item will return to Australia. The official may correct me, but that is my understanding.

Mr Nockels : That is correct, minister.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard