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Great Wall of China. Image: Wikimedia

Defence faces up to China threat

By Peter Jennings and Michael Shoebridge

Last Friday’s announcement by Scott Morrison that Australia was “being targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber actor” puzzled some: why not name China, why not be specific about the attacks?

It’s the eternal challenge with intelligence matters. We don’t want our opponents to know how effectively we track them. Equally important though, the public must understand the threat and why cyber security is so vital.

As Beijing gets more assertive, our government must bring Australians more into its confidence on national security. It’s a time for clarity, not euphemisms about being “country agnostic” when identifying threats.

Indeed, there is a good story to tell. Three important developments happened last Friday that received little attention but point to an emerging strategy for national security where Australia will play a globally leading role.

First, Josh Frydenberg hosted a call with the finance ministers of the Five Eyes nations — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the US — that mirror the intelligence relationship at the core of Australian security since World War II. Aligning policy among these countries on economic security is a substantial development. Foreign investment is a prime case in point. We are stronger if we share information and co-ordinate our approaches, encouraging investment from within the Five Eyes and including other democracies in our technology research, critical infrastructure and economy.

Second, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds met NATO counterparts on the geopolitical challenges presented by the pandemic. Again, outside of talks on Afghanistan, this is a first.

These developments show that the democracies are aligning. The pandemic provides the cover to discuss the biggest challenge to global stability: China under Xi Jinping.

Third, Reynolds announced the creation of a “defence intelligence enterprise” to be led by a new senior military chief of defence intelligence.

This is more than a bureaucratic restructure. The need is to strengthen the intelligence-collecting backbone of new multi-billion-dollar equipment such as the Joint Strike Fighters, Air Warfare Destroyers, Growler electronic warfare aircraft, and piloted and autonomous maritime surveillance aircraft.

In Defence, reorganising these areas brings together a patchwork of dispersed army, navy and air force intelligence units working with the portfolio’s big agencies: the intelligence assessors in the Defence Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation providing satellite imagery, and the Australian Signals Directorate with its cyber skills.

Typically, single service units have a priority focus on their service’s needs. Investment in intelligence systems for these units can be patchy as a result. These historical arrangements worked well when the intelligence needed by operational military personnel was more neatly divided between air, sea and land. But they are not suitable for the world of hi-tech military gear that Defence has and will buy much more of in coming decades.

The gap that needs to be filled is in providing a system that takes advantage of the huge amount of electronic data that Defence is able to collect before and during conflict. This is about creating a virtuous loop — where war-fighters’ needs are met by tailored intelligence data and where war-fighters collect the raw data that the intelligence analysts need to provide support.

The terabytes of data that new ships, submarines and aircraft can collect require a back-office enterprise that can handle data at unprecedented volumes and speed, and make use of it for everything from tactical operations to strategic level decision-making by government.

A key change gives one person — the new chief of defence intelligence — clear authority over intelligence investments, and over training and staffing of intelligence functions, civilian and military.

At the same time the approach integrates effectively with the bigger national intelligence community. Slowly, but at gathering pace, Australia’s intelligence system is moving from agencies working in silos towards a shared, integrated enterprise. This is a welcome development.

Inside the Australian Signals Directorate, it seems the relatively new position of military principal deputy, which was about ensuring the newly independent statutory agency continued to be very closely connected to the military and its requirements, now reverts to a more junior role. Across time, though, ASD’s technology investments must align increasingly with the big Defence intelligence enterprise being created. It will be interesting to observe that tango for power and resources.

The intelligence that Defence collects is not only useful for wartime commanders and operational units. It’s also vital for decision-makers from the cabinet room down. So, getting the innards of the Defence intelligence machine working is vital to national security as well as providing information for military operators.

All this happened just last Friday. Australia is not just being passively hunted by China. Nationally and internationally we are shaping responses that will toughen our capabilities as we face down the biggest strategic challenge to democracy since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Originally published by: The Australian on 26 Jun 2020