Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin and General Knud Bartels, Chairman of the NATO Military Committe media conference, Canberra

17 February 2015 | Transcript

MARK BINSKIN:                   
Good morning everyone. I’d just like to introduce General Bartels, the chairman of the military committee for NATO, who’s out visiting for a couple of days here to get a better understanding of where Australia sits regionally and what drives us strategically. We’ve had a chance to talk about our engagement with NATO, in particular in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. I thought it was a good chance for the General to be able to talk to you, answer questions that you might want to pose to him. At the end of it, we’ve got the chance to answer any more specific questions for Australia.

But General Bartels, if you’d like to say a few words first of all.

KNUD BARTELS:                   
Thank you very much and I will of course use this opportunity by starting to thank Air Chief Marshal Binskin for inviting me to visit Australia. But first of all and most important, I would like to – on behalf of NATO to thank Australia for its participation in the now-completed ICEF operation in Afghanistan and as well as thank Australia for its participation in Resolute Support Mission. And my condolences goes to the families of those who have lost their lives during the ICEF campaign in Afghanistan. I know what it costs and I know how it feels.

Needless to say, NATO is far away, geographically, from Australia and I definitely realised that flying down here. But we are still linked by many common values and commitments and more crucially, maybe, common threats. Unfortunately, geography and distance no longer protects us and a conflict or a challenge thousands of miles away can have a direct impact on lives, freedom, democracy and security throughout the world. That’s why Australia and NATO operations make sense. We are like-minded when it comes to the security of our citizens.

That is why for NATO, Australia makes a difference. A clear example of this commitment is a significant contribution by Australia of around 400 personnel in Afghanistan within the framework of Operation Resolute Support, or Resolute Support Mission, I should say, which is train, advise and assist mission and where Australia’s role is absolutely key. As to the discussion we have just had, we of course talked about enhance military cooperation between Australia and NATO and the inter-operability initiative which was launched at the Wales Summit.

We’ve just talked about Resolute Support Mission, which is also an issue we’ve been addressing, and then we have been looking at how we can enhance common training and exercising, education and so on, both in NATO’s area of responsibility, but also in Australia’s area – national interest area in all dimensions. So, it is a wonderful opportunity for me to visit Australia and thank you very much for having me.

MARK BINSKIN:                   
Any questions? Max, you’re not backwards at coming forwards.

QUESTION:                           
Afghanistan – the Resolute Support Mission ends at the end of next year. Are we in danger of leaving Afghanistan in the lurch when it’s over?

KNUD BARTELS:                   
First of all, I think we need to keep in mind that we are just at the beginning of Resolute Support Mission. We are here in February ’15 and the Resolute Support Mission ends at the end of 2016. We have a year to assess in 2015 how our situation is unfolding in Afghanistan, where for the first time, the Afghan National Security Forces will be entirely responsible for the security of the country. And I have to say, it looks quite promising. It doesn’t mean that there are no challenges, but it looks quite promising.

We will need to have a flexible approach as to how we’re going to deal with 2016 and NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan does not end by the end of 2016. There will be a partnership with Afghanistan and I know that Australia has set aside substantial funding for that partnership, support to the Afghan Government, etcetera, and we’re looking forward to cooperating with Australia on exactly(*) on that issue. So I think that the future of engagement in Afghanistan is on the right track and I think there is a very good chance that we would be seeing Afghanistan moving towards exactly what we would like to see, a stable and secure country.

QUESTION:                           
Do you support a more flexible timetable, General, as has been requested by President Ghani and has reportedly been discussed in Washington – and for that matter, CDF [indistinct]…

MARK BINSKIN:                   
General first?

KNUD BARTELS:                   
There is no doubt that we need to have pragmatic approach as to timelines in 2015 and particularly the fighting season in 2015. And we are indeed discussing this issue as you have exactly highlighted and President Ghani has made a very strong statement on the issue. I’m quite optimistic as to the outcome of this.

MARK BINSKIN:                   
We’d like to work more conditions based on time based for this and I think it’s good that President Ghani’s taking a keen interest in this and the transition of his country and we support that. I’d also like to say, if you look at the trajectory Afghanistan’s on, they had two elections last year that the National Security Forces – Afghan National Security Forces provided the security for that were successful. We saw a successful transition of government. We’re seeing a President that’s taking a keen interest in the security of the nation.

We’re seeing cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan now that we hadn’t seen as well before. And I was in Pakistan last week and I was up on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border talking to the commanders about their cooperation across border in trying to counter both sides border for the terrorist threat. So, you’re seeing a lot of positive trends at the moment for the security. It’s not over by a long way, there’s a long way to go, but the trends are all positive.

QUESTION:                           
Do you both see a further role for the Special Forces counter-terrorism operations? It’s – the US is doing it right now in partnership with the Afghan Special Forces and do you see a role for that being expanded to other – say to a NATO countries [sic] or for Australia?

MARK BINSKIN:                   
Me first. I think where you’re seeing the support is in helping develop the Afghan Security Forces capability. So that area there, in the training and capability development sense, is important to them in the long term.

QUESTION:                           
General – sorry.

KNUD BARTELS:                   
Yeah. I share the view. I think it’s too early to say exactly what we’re going to do in the long run. We have to – we should not forget that we might be talking about the end of 2016, but we first have to get through 2015 and 2015 will set the conditions for how events unfold in Afghanistan in 2016. And during this process, we will conduct consultation, not alone with 28 allies, but with our partners in this endeavour, to define how were going to move on beyond the end of 2016.

QUESTION:                           
General Bartels, could I just get your assessment of whether you think Islamic State is getting stronger or weaker in the Middle East? And given the Italians have called overnight for NATO involvement, just how do you see that unfolding?

KNUD BARTELS:                   
First of all, there is no doubt that ISIL is a threat to the world at large, in one way or another. More directly, of course, as to the neighbours of where it is unfolding its operation – primarily Iraq, Syria and part of North Africa and here I’m talking about Libya of course. The alliance, as such, is not directly engaged, but it monitoring very carefully the situation. We have participated – in fact we have conducted a reinforcement of the ballistic missile defence of Turkey, along the southern border, addressing a potential threat for missiles being launched from Syria. A substantial number of nations from the alliance, on a national basis, within a coalition of the willing organisation led by the United States, has engaged with a substantial numbers of our countries, are participating in the operation. But the alliance as such is not engaged directly.

What the future will bring, that is a political decision which will have to be taken in the light of events as they unfold in the region. I think it’s too early to say what will take place and there is not doubt the situation in Libya, also, in the light of the recent horrifying events of the beheading of Egyptian citizens is very, very worrisome. You said that Italy had called upon NATO to intervene. I don’t think that’s exactly what was said.

QUESTION:                           
Just an NBC [indistinct]…

KNUD BARTELS:                   
Yes.

MARK BINSKIN:                   
Chris?

KNUD BARTELS:                   
On that though, Turkey’s a member of the NATO alliance and once of the concerns is that Turkey’s been a gateway for fighters who want to get from the West and join ISIL.

KNUD BARTELS:                   
Well controlling borders in general is one of the difficult issues, and particularly in controlling the borders in that part of the world. I can guarantee you the Turkish authorities are very much aware of this situation and are also very much aware of the consequences of it. NATO, as such, is not engaged in police cooperation. This takes place either on the bilateral or multilateral basis or with the European Union and other neighbouring nations and so on. So we are not entirely engaged in it. But there is full awareness of ISIL from the Turkish authorities and we are in close dialogue with them as to potential evolutions.

QUESTION:                           
General, can you talk a bit more about the enhanced partnership and how you actually see that going forward? It’s – right now it’s difficult to see any particular conflict where Australia and NATO might actually be fighting side by side as they have been doing in Afghanistan, however obviously there are areas for that to evolve. What does that actually mean, putting that into practice the – what was agreed to in the [indistinct]?

KNUD BARTELS:                   
Should I, or you?

MARK BINSKIN:                   
Sure, I can talk about some of the activities that we’re doing with NATO. If you think about MH-17 last year, the fact that we’d had a good relationship with NATO out of Afghanistan and in particular the Dutch out of Afghanistan, it meant that we could deploy over there and be able to plug into support mechanisms, simply by the fact that we’d had that relationship in the past. For the future, there’s opportunities for us if we have ships in particular areas to chop across to NATO and participate in their operations, whether that’s counter-piracy, counter-drugs, or even just providing that situational awareness and more information for the situational awareness of NATO overall. There’s potential for us to do that. But, it’s a good relationship and it’s something we can use when we’re over in that area.

KNUD BARTELS:                   
I would just highlight a Danish sentence, which is, it’s difficult to predict particularly the future. And I’m not going to tell you where we possibly will be shoulder to shoulder in the future, but if you look back at what has taken place in the last 10 years, we have been surprised strategically quite a number of times by what has suddenly take place – ISIL being, we just talked about. Afghanistan did not – shall I say, was not on the screen before – the radar screen before 9/11 etcetera, etcetera.

So what I think is really important is to make sure that the Australian armed forces and the armed forces of the NATO nations are interoperable, can work together any time, anywhere, according to circumstances, when the governments of the nations in question make a decision that we have common interests and we need to share the responsibility of handling the issue. And that’s what I consider to be very important from my position as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. That is why I’m here, among other reasons – to make sure that we establish the best possible military relationship between Australia and the alliance. And when the day comes where there’ll be a necessity to unfold this cooperation, we will be ready.

QUESTION:                           
Can you just explain – why isn’t NATO directly more involved in the Iraq conflict at the moment? Baghdad has asked NATO for help in training. Why hasn’t that decision been taken? Isn’t it a fairly obvious – isn’t there a pressing need for it?

KNUD BARTELS:                   
Yes. What you’re talking about is a training mission; it has a purpose of training the Iraqi Security Forces in one context or another. This requires very clear definition as to what is expected of the alliance in relation to the Iraqis and this definition has not taken place yet. There are negotiations ongoing and we’ll be ready the day the political decision is made.

QUESTION:                           
Is Baghdad not sufficiently clear about what it wants?

KNUT BARTELS:                    
It goes both ways. We have to make sure that the Iraqis know exactly what they want with us and we have to be sure we can deliver what they want. And as you know there’s a campaign ongoing for the time being – a military campaign between the Coalition, the Iraqi forces, against ISIL and its potential allies. And it is – this is the first priority for the Iraqi authorities. And as soon as we get a clear definition – as I mentioned, then we will be ready to move, pending political decision.

MARK BINSKIN:                   
But it hasn’t stopped NATO nations contributing [indistinct]…

KNUT BARTELS:                    
Absolutely not…

MARK BINSKIN:                   
… so, were just talking as a NATO framework, not as NATO nations.

KNUT BARTELS:                    
A substantial number of NATO nations are involved actively – be it Germany, my own nation, the nations flying close air support, or other operations.

QUESTION:                           
We’ve seen ISIL arise in states with weak central governments or have been completely destabilised by war – so Syria, Iraq, Libya now. How concerned are you in fact as Afghanistan transitions out, that there are parts of that country that are destablilised enough that you might see an even more dangerous enemy arise there?

KNUT BARTELS:                    
In Afghanistan?

QUESTION:                           
In Afghanistan, the next possible…

KNUT BARTELS:                    
Yes. I think that the – as Air Chief Marshal Binskin highlighted, the new Government of Afghanistan with President Ghani has been very forceful in setting its priorities which is to develop the economy; to make sure that the Afghan national security forces know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. And the President has taken ownership of the challenges of Afghanistan. We have seen a breakthrough, hopefully to be continued, of the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. So I think that Afghanistan is moving in the right directions. As I said earlier, it doesn’t mean there are no challenges. It doesn’t mean there is a 100 per cent guarantee at the end of the day. But I would say the chances are increasing on a daily basis for a positive outcome of Afghanistan.

QUESTION:                           
Obviously – the situation in Ukraine, the ceasefire at the moment – it appears there’s still fighting going on. Are you optimistic in fact that – essentially that Vladimir Putin is not a partner for peace. He clearly wants to change things on the ground and you’re constantly playing catch up. I know that’s not involved but [indistinct] situation anyway.

KNUT BARTELS:                    
The situation in Ukraine is pretty grave. And the ceasefire which has been agreed in this corridor – Minsk II agreement recently – yes, the jury is still out as to whether it will hold up. If it does not work out, it will be an even more serious situation. To a large extent this is – Ukraine itself, NATO is not involved – well, it is because it has created the five trust funds and etcetera. But not involved military in Ukraine directly. But we have taken steps which make sure that allies which might feel themselves threatened by further degrading of the situation in Ukraine, in particular the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, feel confidence of the guarantee of the alliance.
And we have done this by both deployment of forces on a rotational basis, participating in exercises. We have reinforced the air policing. We are working on future developments with the Readiness Action Plan. And I am not in doubt that next year at the upcoming summit in Warsaw we will see the alliance very clearly what it expects as to the outcome of the situation.

QUESTION:                           
Was it a strategic mistake for NATO to start to embrace Ukraine – Vladimir Putin sees it as a threat?

KNUT BARTELS:                    
That’s a question we should ask those who made that decision.

QUESTION:                           
Do you see this as a new Cold War, General?

KNUT BARTELS:                    
No. I do not share the view that this is a new Cold War. The geography of the Cold War has changed completely. That’s the first thing. Secondly, all those nations are economically and financially closely linked to each other. And we cannot separate, if I may say so, ourselves from each other, as to a certain extent was the case during the Cold War. And then I would like to highlight that Russia is where Russia is and solutions have to be found for the future. Whether it is today or in 10, 15 or 20 years, that we don’t know. But solutions will have to be found.

QUESTION:                           
Alright. Are we asking one question on submarines, is that stressing the [indistinct]?

MARK BINSKIN:                   
Go for it.

QUESTION:                           
Simply on timing, obviously, the threat is that you face a capability gap at some stage so – clearly, you can’t comment on the politics of it, but can you give us some sense of the urgency of the need to move toward some kind of decision?

MARK BINSKIN:                   
Well we do need to work the process and keep it moving forward and therefore, as we do this competitive evaluation, that will help obtain the facts and the broad areas that we need to focus on as we move forward in the whole development and building of the submarine. So the current pace needs to be maintained, or we do risk the capability gap out in the future. And that’s what I keep an eye on. For me, as the overall commander of the Australian Defence Force, I want to make sure that we’re looking at a capability that will meet the timeframe and meet the capability requirements, because I’m always worried about the risks and the overall capability of the product that’s delivered in the end.

QUESTION:                           
So when do you need decisions to be made to get you in [indistinct]…

MARK BINSKIN:                   
The process that we’re running now is running the timeline that we need to be able to do that. We can’t afford this to be prolonged. Yeah.

QUESTION:                           
Is there a national security aspect in the argument for building them here in Australia? Sorry [indistinct]…

MARK BINSKIN:                   
There’s an emotive argument for me. I don’t believe you have to build to be able to sustain in the country. You have to know the system and you have to know it well to be able to do it. You – so – the build question is quite a broad question. If we integrate, if we have our test systems here, we’re participating in the construction, you get the knowledge through that to be able to sustain it. And to be honest with you, if you’re looking at an economic proposition here, two-thirds of the cost throughout the life is the sustainment. That’s where the best investment is because that gives us the wherewithal to adapt the platform over the 30 year lifetime. So…

QUESTION:                           
So in your opinion, they don’t need to [indistinct]…

MARK BINSKIN:                   
No, from my point of view, I want to manage the risks and I want to make sure that we get the capability that we need as a defence force to be able to look to the future. We’re talking 30, 40 years out here, so that’s where I come from as a commander.

QUESTION:                           
[Indistinct] …align with the expected release of the White Paper around mid-year?

MARK BINSKIN:                   
I think that’s the current timing that we’re working for for the White Paper. Yes.

QUESTION:                           
The White Paper and the submarines?

MARK BINSKIN:                   
I think there will be a lot of decisions and announcements that will come out that will be scoped around the White Paper. So I’ll leave it with that.

General noise]

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:     
[Laughs] No, the General’s got to go.

*         *         End         *         *


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Issued by Ministerial and Executive Coordination and Communication,
Department of Defence,
Canberra, ACT
Phone: 02 6127 1999 Fax: 02 6265 6946

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