Opening Statement: the Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston Budget Estimates Hearing
(Source: Australian Department of Defence; issued June 3, 2009)
Good Morning. Right at the outset I want to reiterate my support for the remarks made by the Secretary about the Special Forces pay issue. A great deal of work has been done since we were last here in February. I am confident that Defence has a firm grasp of the issue and the right way forward to improve our pay systems. I assure the Committee that the Secretary and I will be paying very close attention to the implementation of the five recommendations from the KPMG Report.

This morning I intend to speak for about 15 minutes. I will begin with the White Paper, then provide a brief update on operations and conclude with some comments about Defence’s upcoming response to the Street & Fisher Report.

White Paper

Firstly, I begin with the release of the 2009 Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030.

This White Paper is a very good outcome for the Australian Defence Force. It is exactly what we need to ensure we have the long term guidance, planning and force structure to provide Australia with a military that has the capacity to protect Australia and our interests. I am delighted with the capability decisions that have been made and the balance between the three Services.

The Service Chiefs are equally delighted with the White Paper decisions applicable to their Service, and indeed to the other Services. We are all very focused on the joint effect we will gain from this document. Force 2030 will provide Australia with a formidable set of integrated military capabilities that will keep our country secure against the backdrop of a changing strategic environment.

Importantly, our three services are ready to begin this significant transition period. Indeed, they are already well underway making the necessary cultural and structural reforms that we need to help transform Defence.

Navy, under the leadership of Vice Admiral Russ Crane, has been undergoing a cultural shift toward a more positive, progressive, people focussed and innovative Service underpinned by their New Generation Navy initiative. Army, under the leadership of Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, has undertaken a detailed self-examination called ‘Adaptive Army’ to ensure that their command and control, force generation and force preparation are appropriate for the contemporary and future security environments. And Air Force, under the leadership of Air Marshal Mark Binskin, continues with their ‘Air Force – One Team’ cultural approach in order to reaffirm themselves as a values-based Air Force with an inclusive workforce focused on professional mastery.

This White Paper has been a lengthy, consultative and complex task. I stress that every facet of our organisation has had the opportunity to contribute to the development of this comprehensive document. The future security of our nation has been strengthened with the release of this White Paper.

However, this commitment from the Government requires a return commitment from Defence to improve the way we do business. I fully endorse the comments made by the Secretary today about the Strategic Reform Program.

I have made a number of visits to our people since the release of the White Paper in order to communicate the importance of the White Paper and the SRP to Defence people. I have made it clear to them the SRP is essential to delivering Force 2030. And I have made it clear the SRP is different to other reform programs from the past, in that it is built on sound analysis from the companion reviews and the Pappas Budget Audit; it is Defence driven for our benefit; it has senior leadership buy-in and accountability; and it is not only focused on delivering savings. I have already spoken to somewhere in the order of 7000 people, and I intend to keep making these visits until I am confident the message is out loud and clear.

Operations

I will just take 5 minutes to make some points about: Afghanistan and counter-piracy; the Solomon Islands; and border protection.

Firstly, our efforts in Afghanistan continue to progress well. Our immediate focus is on the pending Afghanistan troop increase that will bring additional training capacity to the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force and extra security forces to support the August Afghan elections.

Over the past six months the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) have conducted nine major operations, which have successfully disrupted Taliban activity in Oruzgan, putting the terrorists and insurgents at a significant disadvantage and helping to extend stability and security in the province. In fact, on May 24 a key Taliban insurgent commander, Mullah Qasim was killed during a short battle between insurgents and the SOTG supported Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). Additionally, separate SOTG and Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force (MRTF) patrols, in cooperation with their ANSF partners, have discovered 20 caches of weapons.

Last week I released the findings of an inquiry into alleged civilian casualty claims against ADF personnel operating in the Baluchi Pass area of southern Afghanistan in early January. The inquiry found that there was no evidence to support a finding that the ADF had caused civilian casualties on the 5th of January.

I also announced the findings of two other civilian casualty allegations. Firstly, we have completed an assessment of accusations contained in recent media reporting of possible ADF involvement in an incident which resulted in the death or injury of members of Mr Abdul Khaliq’s family on July 5 2006. The assessment found that there is no evidence, nor any suggestion or indication that such evidence may exist, to support allegations that Australian Special Forces were involved in the incident.

The second report concerned use of deadly force against an Afghan man approaching a checkpoint by the MRTF last December. The Afghan had a visible suspicious wire on his body and did not comply with the clear directions of our soldiers to stop. He was then considered a threat and was fired upon. The review officer found that the MRTF patrol had acted appropriately and within their Rules of Engagement.

I emphasise that we will investigate credible allegations of civilian casualties in an open and transparent way. We report on these matters to the Government and the Australian people, and we put an absolute priority on ensuring our forces operate within their rules of engagement and according to international legal norms.

You should also note that our frigate and AP-3C maritime patrol aircraft that are currently based in the Middle East will be flexibly tasked between counter-piracy operations around the Gulf and the Horn of Africa and their current counter-terrorism and maritime security patrol duties.

The efforts of our Reservists in the Solomon Islands also warrant special mention today as many of the soldiers that are currently deployed also supported the Victorian Bushfires earlier this year. It has been a busy year for them, but they are performing wonderfully well. Our Defence Cooperation Program is complementing the efforts of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. Examples are the recent refurbishment of the Honiara Wharf, explosive ordnance disposal training and Airport Airside Driver Training.

Finally, our people continue to provide extensive support to Border Protection operations and have been involved in a number of recent apprehensions. In particular, I remain extremely proud of the actions of the ADF members involved with the SIEV 36 incident.

I look forward to your questions on operations later in the day.

Street & Fisher Report

Finally, I turn now to some recent developments with the ongoing reform of the military justice system. I was very pleased to receive the Report of the Independent Review on the Health of the Reformed Military Justice System, otherwise known as the ‘Street & Fisher Report’, at the end of January this year.

This report provided the first independent external review assessing the effectiveness of our reformed military justice system and the progress of the enhancements we have made since 2005.

The Street & Fisher Report makes 49 recommendations aimed at consolidating the last decade of reform and ensuring the ADF military justice system is properly positioned—both in terms of structure and resourcing—for the Strategic Reform Program enhancements that lie ahead of us.

We will soon brief the Minister on a comprehensive implementation plan we have devised for the progression of further military justice reforms. And I intend to make public our detailed response to the Street & Fisher Report when the Government’s response to this committee’s 4th progress report is tabled in the next session of Parliament.

A great deal of work has been done over the last four years to improve the military justice system; a great deal of work remains to be done over the next three years. I remain totally committed to ensuring that the momentum continues in military justice reform.

Conclusion

That concludes my opening remarks. Thank you for the opportunity to make these comments at the outset of proceedings. The Secretary and I look forward to your questions.

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