Offensive cyber capabilities, autonomous systems, and an improved space presence are all part of the government’s technology-driven defence budget announced on Wednesday.
The government will spend $270 billion on defence in the coming decade – up from its previous target of around $195 billion.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the increased budget was about re-posturing Australia as a regional power.
“The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of rising strategic competition,” Morrison said.
“Our region will not only shape our future; increasingly, it is the focus of the dominant global contest of our age.
“Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region, as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, and the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.”
Along with the acquisition of long-range missiles, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) will look to become a presence in space which Morrison described as “a new theatre” for war.
Building a network of “sovereign-controlled” communications satellites will comprise part of the $7 billion allocated to Australia’s space capabilities over the coming decade.
As a comparison, the United States is looking to spend some $22 billion to establish its Space Force in 2021 alone.
Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, said the ADF needed to be adaptable to evolving geopolitical circumstances.
“Australia’s security environment is changing quickly, with militarisation, disruptive technological change and new grey zone threats making our region less safe,” Reynolds said.
“That’s why this Government will invest in more lethal and long-range capabilities to hold adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia, including longer-range strike weapons, offensive cyber capabilities and area denial capabilities.”
As presaged by the Prime Minister’s recent cybersecurity warning, the ADF will focus attention on cyberspace with a $15 billion cyber spend up to 2030.
That includes investing in overall improved network resilience as well as enabling “operations against adversary systems”.
Little is known about the government’s current offensive cyber campaigns, although late last year the Australian Signals Directorate did share information about the attack on an Islamic State media network it contributed to in 2016.
There’s also lasers
Defence will also be looking to equip its naval vessels with “directed energy weapons” like lasers or microwaves.
It expects to then adapt the energy weapons for land equipment that would be “capable of defeating armoured vehicles up to and including main battle tanks” .
“The eventual deployment of directed energy weapons may also improve land force resilience by reducing the force’s dependence an ammunition stocks and supply lines,” Defence’s 2020 Force Structure Plan said.
Laser weapons have not seen much use in real-world scenarios.
Last year, it was reported that Turkey used a laser to shoot down a Chinese drone flying over Libya, though that claim has been contested.
China’s state-owned newspaper, the Global Times, has suggested the use of low-energy lasers to deter the US from patrolling the South China Sea.
The US has been testing a laser weapon system aboard naval craft since 2014.
Artificial intelligence and data analytics have been flagged as areas for Defence innovation along a roadmap that Defence said “also likely include robotics, immersive technologies and quantum computing”.
Peter Jennings, executive director the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Defence was clearly exploring “some new and exotic technologies”.
Speaking on the Policy, Guns and Money podcast, Jennings explained how it was clear the ADF is trying to deter any would-be attackers through technological advancement.
“What we have here is an emphasis on the ability to defend Australia but in the context of a large region – South East Asia, the Eastern Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific,” he said.
“I think the intent here is to imagine, in a combat situation, an Australian Defence Force that could be quite widely and broadly deployed with a range of weapons.
“The intent is essentially to make the costs of wanting to attack Australia too high.”