Interview on ABC NewsRadio – 2 August 2011





BARTHOLOMEW: The Defence Materiel Minister says he’s been told by Australian troops in Afghanistan they are making progress despite a recent spate of high profile assassinations.

Jason Clare is now in the UK where he’s about to inspect a surplus to requirements Royal Navy ship that we are picking up at a bargain basement price. He’s taken time to speak to NewsRadio’s Steve Chase.

REPORTER: Minister, you were briefed extensively whilst you were in Afghanistan. Are our troops, do you think, more exposed given the recent high profile assassinations in Oruzgan and Kabul?

JASON CLARE: I spoke to our soldiers on the ground and I spoke to our generals there and the feedback I got from both of them is that we’re making good progress. What they told me was that a few years ago when you left the base at Tarin Kowt you had to be – they had to be ready to start shooting as soon as they left the base. In places, they told me, where they were fighting four years ago they’re now finding it’s pretty peaceful. They’ve done a good job in training the soldiers of the 4th Brigade and right across the country they’ve now trained about 300,000 soldiers and police. That’s the US, Australia, Britain and the coalition combined and that’s having a – that’s having a real impact.

In Oruzgan, for example, the soldiers told me that a few years ago they would be at the head of the patrol when they were – when they were out on patrol. Now they’re behind the Afghan National Army and helping them out when they need it.

So the feedback I got is that we are making good progress. It’s not easy. It’s tough and we’re in the middle of a very tough fighting season at the moment where the Taliban are using what you expect them to use. When they’re out in the field, if they’re trying to fight the Australian Army or the Afghan National Army in the field, they’ll lose, they’ll get shot so they’re taking a different approach, a hit and run approach.

These high profile suicide bombings, we’ve seen that in Oruzgan, we’ve seen that in Kandahar and Kabul, we’ve seen it in the capital of the Helmand Province only this week but, for example, in the attempted assassination of the Governor of Oruzgan last week, they failed. They tried to raid the compound and kill him. They succeeded only in killing innocent civilians. They killed schoolchildren across the road from the compound and the more civilians the Taliban kill the more people of Afghanistan that they put offside.

REPORTER: As you know, our forces, our troops are plain speakers. Did they tell you what they needed, what they didn’t like about the operation in Afghanistan?

JASON CLARE:My job is to make sure that our troops have got the equipment they need and that’s why I went to Afghanistan, to talk to them about the resources they’ve got, the equipment they’ve got, to do their job.

In the last few months we’ve given our soldiers in Afghanistan a lot of new equipment: a new combat uniform that provides better camouflage; a new combat body armour which is lighter, makes it easier for our soldiers to get around; as well as extra protection for our Bushmaster vehicles so that when they are hit by those home-made bombs our soldiers are protected inside.

I spoke to our soldiers about all of that and got great feedback. They told me that we’ve got the resources to do the job and the equipment that they’re getting is improving all the time.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we can sit back and say that everything’s fine. I’ll be coming back to Australia after I finish here in the UK and talking to our team called Diggerworks, made up of soldiers who’ve just come back from Afghanistan and talking to them about how we can continue to improve the equipment our soldiers have on the ground.

REPORTER: Speaking of the equipment that they need in Afghanistan, apparently at the moment you’re on your way to Plymouth in the UK to look at equipment that the UK doesn’t want, this surplus landing ship. Tell us about that.

JASON CLARE:Yes, the ship’s called the Largs Bay and it’s a great pickup for Australia. It’s not often that a warship becomes available that’s only five years old.

The problems that we’ve had with our amphibious ships in Australia are well-known. They’re now around about 40 years old and some of them are on their last legs. They’ll be replaced by new landing helicopter dock ships, enormous ships that are bigger than our last aircraft carrier and they’ll arrive, they’ll start operating in about five years’ time.

But between now and then we’ve got a gap and to fill that gap we’ve purchased this ship, the Largs Bay.

The Brits used it after the Haiti earthquake to deliver supplies to the people of Haiti. It was very effective there and I’m certain that this will be a terrific ship to help with humanitarian and – humanitarian disasters, emergency situations in Australia and in our region.

REPORTER: Jason Clare, thanks very much for speaking to us this morning.

JASON CLARE: Thanks, Steve, my pleasure.

BARTHOLOMEW: The Defence Materiel Minister, Jason Clare, speaking from the United Kingdom to ABC NewsRadio’s Steve Chase.