As state and non-state cyber capabilities continue to evolve and pose an ever growing threat to critical infrastructure and the national economy and political system, is it time for Australia to combine the nation’s disparate cyber capabilities into a unified, integrated cyber command?
Innovation and out of the box thinking is essential for success in the contemporary threat environment, particularly in the cyber domain – as cyber capabilities emerge as one of the most powerful force multipliers of the 21st century, many nations, both friend and potential foe, have emerged as rising cyber warfare powers.
For many peer and near-peer competitors, cyber capabilities serve as powerful equalisers, limiting the traditional strengths of adversaries like the US, UK and key allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea, each of whom rely on the easy and unhindered access to vast quantities of data, imagery, targeting information and the like to inform decisions across the battlespace.
Further enhancing the force multiplying impact of cyber capabilities is the power of asymmetric cyber actors, acting with the backing of a hostile or rogue government, or in some cases on behalf of an organised criminal organisation or as an individual, making the internet and increasingly interconnected computer and communications systems vulnerable to a range of potential threats.
Recognising this the Australian government has introduced myriad responses and enhanced other capabilities including the Australian Signals Directorate and its network of Australian Cyber Security Centres located in capital cities around the country, AustCyber and the individual cyber capabilities of the Australian Defence Force and various intelligence and law enforcement agencies providing a decentralised network of cyber capabilities.
Looking abroad, the US, UK, Germany and other allies, including NATO as a combined entity, provide a number of interesting force structures integrating the disparate network of cyber capabilities into a uniform cyber command responsible for establishing doctrine and capabilities to support traditional, kinetic force projection and asymmetric warfare capabilities.
United States Cyber Command – a true combatant command
Designed and introduced during the late-2000s, United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) was introduced in response to the growing prominence of both traditional state-based and asymmetric, non-state and organised criminal cyber security and warfare capabilities exposing the increasingly information and networked platform dependent US military to a non-conventional threat.
In particular, the threat of Chinese, Russian, North Korean and Iranian state-backed hackers to continued US and allied military dominance figured strongly in the strategic calculations within the Pentagon and America's intelligence apparatus, namely the National Security Agency (NSA), to form a coherent, 'combined arms' response to the rising threat of cyber warfare.
According to the US Department of Defense, USCYBERCOM's primary mission can be explained as: "USCYBERCOM plans, co-ordinates, integrates, synchronises and conducts activities to: direct the operations and defense of specified Department of Defense information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full spectrum military cyber space operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/allied freedom of action in cyber space and deny the same to our adversaries."
A core force multiplier of USCYBERCOM is the unified command structure of the organisation, combining elements of the US Army (Army Cyber Command and US Army Intelligence and Security Command), US Navy (Fleet Cyber Command/Tenth Fleet), Air Forces Cyber/Twenty-Fourth Air Force, Marine Corps Cyberspace Command in a unified, combatant command within the Department of Defense organisational structure.
While the efficacy and operations USCYBERCOM has been involved with are shrouded in layers of secrecy, in a similar manner to the operations conducted by special operations forces, the growing dependence of allied, peer and near-peer competitor militaries, infrastructure and economies on networked, information technology-based systems means that the capacity of the unit will continue to evolve.
The UK National Cyber Security Centre and GCHQ
Recognising the growing threat of cyber warfare capabilities, the UK government moved to consolidate a range of signals intelligence, cyber resilience, threat assessment and response teams to support computer and cyber security and resilience in the UK public and private sector. In response, the newly formed National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) integrated within the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and serves as the UK's cutting-edge response to state and non-state cyber threats.
GCHQ builds on a strong pedigree established during the Second World War with the cracking of the German Engima codes and incorporates both the Composite Signals Organisation (CSO) and the NCSC, and is responsible for supporting the security of sensitive communications and cyber networks while also integrating with key global partners including the US NSA, Canadian Communications Security Establishment and Australia's own Australian Signals Directorate.
The integration of capabilities from across the UK's armed forces, intelligence community and, increasingly, private sector leverages the capabilities emerging in the respective fields, while also identifying the growing threat offensive cyber capabilities pose to both traditional 'national security' elements and the broader vulnerability of the economy and critical infrastructure.
Australia cannot avoid the global digital and information technology revolution, the transition within the national economy, combined with the Australian Defence Force's pursuit of an integrated, networked and 'multi-domain' capable force, bringing together disparate platforms and capabilities requires a similar approach to that introduced by the nations allies.
Cyber capabilities are fast emerging as a key force multiplier for contemporary military forces, in a similar manner to the advent of air combat capabilities when integrated within traditional 'combined arms' forces during the Second World War, further enhancing the capabilities of a cyber inclusive 'combined arms' force structure, operating doctrine and network is the integration of individual elements of Australia's intelligence community to provide an integrated, holistic national security image and cyber response.
The cyber domain is rapidly emerging as a battleground, one being dominated by state and non-state actors alike, representing political systems and ideologies that serve as a diametric opposites to the values Australia stands for – recognising this, whether Australia's political leaders and public will it, totalitarian regimes are becoming increasingly powerful and assertive, challenging the values and virtues for which the West stands.
This rise of tyranny requires that Australia embrace what will become an increasingly important role in supporting the maintenance of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order the nation is an essential part of.