Australia seems ill-equipped for cyberwar 'rapid catch-up'

Between our political leadership's lack of technological literacy, and an over-emphasis on secrecy, how can Australia possibly compete in cyber-enabled war?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

China is rapidly expanding its capability for cyber-enabled war, as are other nations. A leading defence scholar said Australia is 'badly lagging'. We need to catch up. Fast. But we seem poorly equipped to face that challenge.

"For a quarter of a century, successive Australian governments have been unable to come to terms with the full import of the digital revolution transforming the world," wrote Professor Greg Austin in his report, Australia Rearmed: Future Capabilities for Cyber-enabled Warfare, released on Tuesday.

"This has been particularly visible in the defence sector even though our major ally, the United States, began a clear transition in the mid-1990s," he wrote.

Australia has not yet embraced the military concept of "information dominance", largely a cyberspace strategy, preferring a doctrine of "information activities" based on decades-old concepts. Australia has also been reluctant to acknowledge the US doctrine of "prompt global strike" in the cyber realm.

"Until the appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister in September 2015, the last Australian prime minister before him to make a speech of any significance or depth on the information revolution had been Paul Keating in 1997, and he made that one year after he left office."

Now Austin does note Turnbull's vision, "in broad terms only so far", for a 21st-century government, along with the establishment of the Digital Transformation Office, and the announcement of the "growth centre" for innovation in cybersecurity.

Austin also notes that we'll soon see the new Cyber Security Strategy white paper, delayed from its original 2015 release date because Turnbull has taken a personal interest. Against that background, Wednesday's announcement of an annual Australia-US Cyber Security Dialogue seems promising.

But he also notes some wider factors that can't be fixed quickly.

"The concept of 'information society' as framed around the world does not seem to have as much life in Australia as in most developed countries. This has had a retarding effect on the country's digital preparedness for national security purposes," Austin writes.

"While the imminent Defence White Paper is likely to provide for elaboration of doctrines of cyber-enabled war in some fashion, the elaboration of a new doctrine can only be the start of a process of change. Such processes often need decades to implement and will remain hostage to the broader levels of social response (or lack of it) to the high potential of the information revolution.

"The essence of this revolution is how information is gathered, aggregated, redistributed and used relying on advanced artificial intelligence, radically different types of IT professionals, and new, purpose-designed organisations." he said.

"In 2015, the World Economic Forum ranked China at 25th in the world in terms of the importance of ICTs in government vision of the future. Australia was at 40th, behind countries like Azerbaijan, The Gambia, Indonesia, Macedonia and New Zealand (ranked 7th). Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Malaysia were ranked ahead of China and Australia in terms of government commitment to 'network readiness' and preparation for the information age."

Could national security factors finally turn Turnbull away from his oft-stated claim that 25 megabits per second is enough for most folks?

Austin also notes that the Australian government hasn't been prepared to discuss these vital strategic matters in public.

America's Department of Defense Cyber Strategy of 2015 "makes plain that any country intent on fighting a cyber capable adversary will be more effective the more it can talk publicly about the detail," writes Austin.

"By comparison, there has been no such recognition in Australian policy documents of the novel, arguably central role, of cyber-enabled warfare. There has also been no recognition of the value of public engagement in devising cyber war polices."

Indeed, as I've written previously, the first threat report from the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) was so devoid of concrete detail as to be meaningless. Certain public statements by a key ACSC executive and others about taking a more risk-based approach to secrecy seemed to be directed to their own defence and intelligence community as much as to us mug citizens.

Finally, allow me to to add in a long-term factor of my own.

The oft-quoted figure is that 90 percent of China's leaders are scientists or engineers, and education is king.

"Today in China the most impressive buildings in poor provinces are schools. In the West, it is more likely to be a shopping center, and in Africa it would be the residence of the local governor," wrote Silicon Africa. "Transformational leaders even in the West are scientists like German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has a doctorate in physical chemistry, and, going back a little bit, Margaret Thatcher earned a degree in chemistry."

Compare that with our own depressing grab-bag of party-political also-rans and prehistoric relics that Australia is blessed with. Even in the more scientifically-literate parts of The Greens, discussions about defence matters rarely get past "It's all very, very bad."

We are so cyber-screwed.

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