Australian Army, cavalry scout, As Samawat, Iraq, by Robert H Baumgartner (US Army, 2007)

Australian Defence Force Responds to Cyber Threat

Australia’s New Cyber/Information Warfare Unit

Australia’s military is investing in meeting today’s challenges with the launch of a new cyber/information warfare unit. The focus on cyber is one of the biggest shifts in Australian defence strategy, with the unit tasked with protecting Australia’s military infrastructure, gathering intelligence and engaging offensively in the cyber domain.

The move comes after it was reported by ABC News in 2016 that Austrade and the Defence Science Technology Group, the Defence Department’s elite research division, had been hacked by Chinese cyber operatives.

ABC News reports that the new cyber unit will launch within days and will be a central part of Australian defence. Earlier this year Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that cyber security is “the new frontier of warfare” and put forward new measures for capability in this sector, according to ABC News:

This is the new frontier of warfare — the new frontier of espionage. It’s the new frontier of many threats to Australian families, to governments, to businesses.

Professor Greg Austin from the University of New South Wales described it as one of the biggest shifts in defence strategy:

The main angle of cyber war is to prevent the enemy’s armed forces from reaching the start line of battle. The aim is to stop their ships being able to sail, stop their jet aircraft from being able to drop bombs and to stop their submarines dead in the water.

Initally, the unit will be manned by 100 personnel, growing to 900 within 10 years, according to Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper. However, there was no mention of a new unit:

The Government is committed to ensuring that Australia can address the growing cyber threat including through enhanced co-operation with the United States and our other international partners. Defence makes a critical contribution to Australia’s whole-of-government cyber-security efforts, ensuring the integrity of Australian government information and systems. This includes the invaluable work of the Australian Signals Directorate. Defence will continue to work closely with other agencies to protect Australian interests in the cyber domain, including through the multi-agency Australian Cyber Security Centre.

According to the White Paper, Australia already has a Cyber Security Centre.

Australian “Twitter Troops”

The new unit will not look like any other in Australian military history. Its staff will be a mixture of military and civilian personnel, but the unit’s commander, Major General Marcus Thompson, has flagged some of recruitment challenges.

Pay will be an issue, as will the military’s physical requirements.

The unit will work across the three services to protect Australia’s military infrastructure. A key part of its role will also be to identify high-value foreign targets and prepare to launch its own attacks. Targets could include the Chinese navy’s South Sea Fleet, which is operating in the South China Sea.

New Unit Also Specializing in Information Warfare

A key part of information warfare is psychological, to undermine and influence the enemy. This will also be a central focus of the new unit’s role.

John Blaxland, Australian National University, said that cyber force could be used beyond wartime situations:

In between war and peace, there’s a lot you can do to hassle, harass, interdict, subvert, undermine and damage. That’s a space Australia hasn’t sought to buy in on, [and] it’s buying in on it big time now.

Australian Cyber Capability Underdeveloped

The major world powers – the USA, UK, Russia and China – all have developed cyber warfare capability, but experts agree that Australia is lagging behind. Professor Austin said:

Australia is relatively undeveloped. We’re well behind the United States, but the good news is Russia and China, potential adversaries of Australia, only really joined this cyber arms race in the relatively recent past.

Reporting of the new unit has so far been confused as cyber warfare and information warfare, although overlapping, require different technologies and skillsets. It remains to be seen how the new unti will organise and deploy its activities.

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