Cyber security expertise and training will be blended with military rigour as the government steps up efforts to improve its ability to defend against malicious cyber attacks on the virtual battlefield.

The allocation of $1.4b in Defence cyber capabilities over 20 years, outlined in the Department of Defence 2020 Force Structure Plan, backs an ambitious agenda for cyber defences that will commit an average $70m per year to support the Australian Defence Force (ADF) through projects such as the Joint Project 9131 Defensive Cyberspace Operations.

The Information and Cyber Domain of the ADF’s overall capability – which the Force Structure Plan positions alongside more conventional Defence capabilities in the maritime, air, and land domains – will be bolstered with investments in areas such as enhanced information and electronic warfare systems and improved joint command, control and communications systems “to strengthen Defence’s warfighting capability”.

Measures will support sharing of information with international partners; expanded funding to integrate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs and data, and ongoing signals-intelligence capabilities.

Funding, the report notes, will also go to “ensure Defence remains competitive in the future as emerging technologies, such as AI, arise in this domain”.

The plan also recognises Australia’s fledgling Space Domain – a nod to the rapid global militarisation of space most recently highlighted by the US Armed Forces’ recent debut of its US Space Force and logo – with a commitment to “transform the way the ADF operates in space” through a $7b investment over the next decade.

This includes investments in areas such as satellite communications, space domain awareness, precision navigation and timing, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – including “cutting edge research” into additional precision timing and other domains.

A boost for cyber training

Earlier this year, Australia was rated as the world’s 15th most secure country – up dramatically over the previous year – but a rising tide of cyber security attacks has this year reinforced the importance of coherent government strategy.

The new approach expands Defence’s cyber security strategy in the wake of a Joint Capabilities Group (JCG) strategy, introduced in 2017, that saw the formation of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Headquarters and its oversight of tactical capabilities including Joint Logistics Command, Joint Health Command, the Australian Defence College, Information Warfare Division, and more.

Under Joint Project 9131, Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said in announcing the new allocation, the government is funding the construction of a “modern, purpose built” Joint Information Warfare Facility (JIWF), based in the ACT.

That C4 (Joint command, control, communications, and computers) facility – billed as a “force multiplier” for will support a range of training, tools, and infrastructure deemed “crucial to ensuring the capacity and relevance of the ADF’s defensive cyber operations capability”,” Reynolds said.

The JIWF “ensures Defence can actively defend its deployed networks and combat platforms against the rapidly evolving cyber threats,” she added, noting that it “will offer significant opportunities for the Australian domestic cyber security sector and the local construction industry.”

Government’s new cyber uplift

The white paper comes on the heels of the government’s 2020 Cyber Security Strategy, which updated its previous strategy and expanded on the government’s 2019 ‘cyber uplift’ strategy by committing $1.6b over the next decade.

That funding will go towards bolstering the cyber security capabilities of other government departments, providing a defensive capability that complements the ADF’s new, more offensively focused cyber warfare capabilities.

“Hackers are committed to finding new entry points to infiltrate government and corporation infrastructures every day, and so this strategy must be implemented with a sense of urgency and revisited as often as the threat landscape changes,” said Jason Baden, ANZ regional vice president with security firm F5 as the strategy debuted.

Cyber capabilities have come to the fore as security analysts monitor a growing tide of attacks on Australian business and government interests.

VMware Carbon Black’s recent Incident Response Threat Report, for one, noted that increasingly aggressive attacks are “ratcheting up existing geopolitical tensions”.

The escalating situation spawned a June warning that the country was facing compromise by a “sophisticated, state-based actor” widely believed to be China.

Fuelled by recent the political and military sabre-rattling of the increasingly restive country, experts believe cyber warfare will be a crucial part of a new, post COVID-19 world order.

This latest funding allocation – coming on the heels of a massive $270b government Defence commitment – confirms that Australia intends to hold its own in the cyber security domain just as it has sought to do in more physical domains.

Professor John Blaxland, of the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, has suggested that Australia’s capabilities boost is “a heartening increase in resolve to confront challenges in our region”.