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Top 5 – Defence Connect’s best Intel, Cyber & Multi-domain stories

2020 was a big year for Defence and defence industry, with major projects progressing across the three branches. In this top five, we will cover the most popular Intel, Cyber and Multi-domain stories of the year.

2020 was a big year for Defence and defence industry, with major projects progressing across the three branches. In this top five, we will cover the most popular Intel, Cyber and Multi-domain stories of the year.

The 2020s have kicked off with one hell of a bang; rising great power tension between the US and China, a global pandemic that has thrown the global economy into turmoil, economic, political and strategic tensions throughout the Indo-Pacific and an increasingly diverse range of challenges facing Australia. 

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We have seen progress on some of Australia's largest defence projects, with the $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class frigates, $80 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class and the arrival of a growing fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft boosting the combat capability of the Australian Defence Force. 

Increasingly, the intelligence, cyber security and diverse spectrum of multi-domain platforms, capabilities and challenges are redefining the way in which Australia responds to the myriad national security challenges and prepares the Australian Defence Force for the future. 

1. Batten down the hatches: PM’s warning as cyber attack unfolds

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have issued a joint statement outlining a “significant state-based cyber attack” against Australian business, government and political organisations.

The opening paragraph of the statement set the scene and, concerningly, revealed Australia's worst fear: "Based on advice provided to the government by our cyber experts, the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), Australian organisations are currently being targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber actor.

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"This activity is targeting Australian organisations across a range of sectors, including all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential service providers, and operators of other critical infrastructure."

The government’s 2016 Cyber Security Strategy – backed by a $230 million investment over four years – has strengthened Australia's cyber security foundations, stimulated private sector investment in cyber security and positioned Australia as a regional cyber security leader.

As part of the joint statement, the three expanded on the evidence of a state-based actor, stating, "We know it is a sophisticated state-based cyber actor because of the scale and nature of the targeting and the tradecraft used. The Australian government is aware of and alert to the threat of cyber attacks.

"The ACSC has already published a range of technical advisory notices in recent times, to alert potential targets and has been briefing states and territories on risks and mitigations. Regrettably, this activity is not new – but the frequency has been increasing."

The government also invested a further $156 million to build cyber resilience and expand the cyber workforce as one of our election commitments and we invested additional funding for a whole-of-government cyber uplift program.

The work of the government’s Critical Infrastructure Centre and Trusted Information Sharing Network has also been focused on the threats to critical infrastructure and other systems of national significance.

2. Cyber failings an indictment of not just capability, but communication

On 30 June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison earmarked $1.35 billion for cyber security investment over the course of the next decade – a historic high. Yet some would argue too little, too late, after a “sophisticated, state-based” attack was launched against critical government infrastructure in the weeks prior.

At the time, Defence Connect reported that Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds issued a joint statement outlining the nature and form of the attack against Australian business, government and political organisations.

Yet as is all too common in the space, their statement was at times vaguely worded, sparse on detail, and unclear about the nature of the threat itself.

In fact, it has taken until recent days for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to shed further light on the attack, levelling an official indictment against a duo of Chinese citizens said to be acting in concert with the Chinese government’s Ministry of State Security.

According to a statement released by the DOJ, Li Xiaoyu, 34, and Dong Jiazhi, 33, targeted a swathe of US defence and infrastructure companies in recent months – as well as an unnamed Australian defence contractor and solar engineering company.

Australian investment into cyber defence strategies has been on an uptick for some time now. In line with the new strategy unveiled in 2016 (intended to cover the four-year run-up to 2020), public consultation was sought with a range of well-heeled academic and policy institutions. Yet this has never been coupled with a direct line of communication to Australian businesses and institutions about defensive doctrine. 

There was no shortage of input from academia and policy institutions at the time; the last national strategy review settled on 33 separate initiatives. Yet this wasn't reflected in budget allocations – as Fergus Hanson of ASPI's International Cyber Policy Centre put it, the associated funding package of $230 million seemed like a "pretty modest budget given what was proposed".

Writing in The Strategist in September of last year, Hanson said that the next strategy needs to be "a lot more focused, given significantly greater resourcing seems unlikely".

With the geopolitical twists and turns of 2020, it seems that Hanson might have his way. The question remains, however, as to how and where this funding will be directed to plug the self-evident gaps in the national cyber defences – and perhaps just as importantly, whether the government will be open and honest about its moves. 

3. Op-Ed: Sustaining sovereign innovation for Australia’s cyber-physical interests

The last month or so has seen unprecedented levels of focus and interest in Australia’s approach to cyber security and the trust we place in data, digital infrastructures and interconnected value and supply chains. Sustaining that is critical to national security, explain Michelle Price, CEO of AustCyber, and Alex Scandurra, CEO of Stone & Chalk.

In the week that Prime Minister Scott Morrison sounded the alarm on Australia continuing to be a target for malicious cyber activity, one of the success stories of Australia’s local cyber security industry, Kasada, announced two major milestones.

The first was its Series B capital raise, led by US firm Ten Eleven Ventures and included existing investors Main Sequence, Westpac’s Reinventure and importantly, the CIA-backed venture firm In-Q-Tel. The second announcement was the appointment of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to its board, who also participated in the round.

These are big achievements for an Australian company in an industry traditionally dominated by global players. It’s all the more remarkable for the fact that Kasada has achieved this success not because of Australia’s maturity around cyber security, innovation or technology start-ups, but in spite of it.

This is true also of the investment environment, where cyber security is one of select few industries bucking the otherwise downward trend following the economic hibernation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have recently been a number of announcements from Australian governments following the uptick in attacks since the start of the pandemic. None more so than the significant joint announcement made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, and Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds for $1.35 billion in funding for the Australian Signals Directorate and related functions to improve the federal government’s cyber armoury.

The NSW government has devoted a record $240 million to shore up the state’s cyber security and integrated this into a $1.6 billion investment in digital infrastructure for government and community services.

To support this investment, Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello has established a cyber security standards task force of key industry players being led by the minister, AustCyber and Standards Australia to reduce duplication, harmonise internationally and guide the implementation of improved cyber security practices across various sectors in the state.

4. Satellite Ground Station goes live

Western Australia’s new Satellite Ground Station is now operational, Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds has revealed, building on the government’s commitment to strengthening sovereign capability.

The new Satellite Ground Station near Geraldton, WA — delivered under Joint Project 2008 Phase 3F in partnership with BAE Systems Australia — is now operational after achieving final operating capability.

The infrastructure, which forms part of the Defence Satellite Communications Program, can now provide anchoring capability to Wideband Global Satellite-Communications satellites primarily located over the Indian Ocean. 

The satellite network includes two military hosted payloads on commercial satellites, a military satellite as part of the US Wideband Global Satellite-Communications system, ground infrastructure across Australia and deployed terminals with accompanying network management capabilities.

According to Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds, the new station in WA, which is the first of three Defence satellite ground station projects to be completed, will advance the government’s work to strengthen Australia’s sovereign capability.

“The Defence Satellite Communications Program is providing the Australian Defence Force with a suite of strategic and tactical satellite communication capabilities,” Minister Reynolds said. 

5. Automation: The future of the combat vehicle?

Much has been made of the thrust towards automatisation in recent years – but, until recently, it’s been largely limited to the civilian space. Over the weekend, the Robotic Combat Vehicle Soldier Operational Experiment came to a close in Fort Carson, Colorado – and the results have outpaced the service’s expectations.

Over the course of the week to come, US Army modernisation officials will round off the service's first experiment with Robotic Combat Vehicles. 

While plans have been in the works since late last year – with successive rounds whittling the field down to just a few bids back in January – Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command and Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team has given short shrift to all else bar:

  • QinetiQ North America and partner Pratt & Miller: which plan to provide four of their seven-ton EMAV robots (Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicles) to serve as the RCV-Light; and
  • Textron: which plans to provide four of its 10-plus-ton Ripsaw mini-tanks to serve as the RCV-Medium (Textron also offered a stripped-down Ripsaw variant for RCV-Light).

The multi-test phase hopes to upgrade today's generation of RCVs from the "geriatric" M113 troop carrier to a family of purpose-built family of RCVs. As the selection process shows, as well, the service plans on introducing unmanned RCVs that cover a broad range of roles, from smaller scouts through to "mini-tanks". 

Over the course of the past five weeks, 4th Infantry Division soldiers based at Fort Carson have been carrying out cavalry-style combat missions in modified Bradley fighting vehicles to direct robotic surrogate M113s. Though Textron has been sidelined for the moment (its prototype is still being improved and refined), the success seen by the QinetiQ team is likely to pile pressure to perform on the latter. 

The service plans to build on the wins (and losses) seen at Fort Carson with a battery of subsequent wet runs; the first of which is scheduled for Fort Hood, in Texas' arid centre. Though this won't take place till 2022, the interim will take both parties back to the drawing board to hash out communications, infrared, and navigational issues.

"Is the technology where we thought it would be, should we continue to spend money on this effort or should we cease effort?" BG Coffman said. That's what he plans to ask, at least, after the conclusion of both runs – building towards a final 2023 decision on whether the program will become a formal program of record. 

Nevertheless, the benefits of being able to engage actors remotely, without the need for boots on the ground, have been manifest over successive Gulf deployments (and other counterinsurgency operations carried out since Vietnam). It's a politically appealing way of conducting warfare – and what's more, it might even have operational appeal, too. 

Top 5 – Defence Connect’s best Intel, Cyber & Multi-domain stories
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