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On Point: The changing nature of the national security space

Growing concern about espionage and foreign interference is changing the nature of the national security debate, with Australia’s centres of higher learning playing an increasingly important role in the long-term national security equation, explains Major General (Ret’d) Gus McLachlan. 

Growing concern about espionage and foreign interference is changing the nature of the national security debate, with Australia’s centres of higher learning playing an increasingly important role in the long-term national security equation, explains Major General (Ret’d) Gus McLachlan. 

Australia’s world-leading universities and research capacity will play an increasingly important role in the broader national security debate. However, unlike traditional components of the national security apparatus, the nations centres of higher learning and research and development are vulnerable to foreign interference and compromise.


While the global and regional period of strategic competition between the US and China is starting to enter a new phase, Australia is just beginning to grasp the importance of its role within both the broader rules-based order established and led by the US since the end of the Second World War and increasingly within the prism of the Indo-Pacific’s rapidly evolving balance of power.

The traditional methods of nations exercising their “hard” and “soft” power is one that has been heavily focused on and will continue to play an important role in understanding what many around the region and indeed the world are beginning to recognise as a potential second Cold War. However, the advent of grey zone tactics and asymmetric security challenges, particularly those leveraged by totalitarian governments in Russia and China, have emerged as an area of challenge for Australia. 

This unconventional approach to statecraft and the increasing politicisation of warfare and strategic competition has been recognised as one of the great tactical and strategic challenges of the modern era, with Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, in particular highlighting the importance of responding to such security challenges.  



This focus on an increasingly complex and convoluted national security environment is presenting a series of challenges, and Australia’s universities are well positioned to respond to these challenges while also supporting the broader Australian national security apparatus, something former commander of Forces Command, Australian Army, turned adjunct professor for Monash University and director of L3 Technologies Australia Major General Gus McLachlan is a strong proponent of. 

What do you see as the growth areas for Australia as it prepares for the next Defence White Paper and what can you see emerging as major trends for the future ADF?

It’s a great question, and I think this is one of the themes that we need to pull this thread now for quite a bit ahead of us.

Defence White Paper 2016 made really clear where we’re going to seek to achieve our advantage as a nation and as a military. I think its still valid. Were never going to have mass in a region where armies have hundreds of thousands of people, defence forces have hundreds of thousands of people. Platform superiority is getting really hard to attain across the board.

Just in my space, the LAND 400 space, any militaries with the right money can go and buy really capable armoured vehicles. And so, if it’s not mass, its selected platform superiority. I think F-35, Wedgetail and Future Submarines are probably the things wed want to be making sure weve absolutely got superiority. But across the board, thats going to be hard and expensive, so whats left?

Well, I think theres two important things left in Defence White Paper 2016 forecast. One is decision superiority. That is an important term, wraps around a lot of stuff. And now theres that human performance advantage that youve hit on both those points in your question. We must continue to grow great people. Were really good at that. We train well. We have a creative, technically informed, young workforce thats entering.

Weve got to give them a culture and a climate where they know theyre appreciated, and I think the leadership transformation thats occurred in the ADF in recent years has really matched that really well.

But on the other side, this thing called decision superiority, it doesnt just happen. And the ability to now pull an over-arching umbrella capability that links the sensors and shooters of the ADF. Weve been talking about this sensor shooter network for a number of years. I think were almost close enough to touch it.

Weve seen trials between a passing data to an air warfare destroyer. Weve seen in the US F-35 targeting information being passed through a Wedgetail AEW&C platform to a ship. I would forecast in the very near future we need to see the joining of that into an ADF system. If thats what a fifth-gen ADF means, well then I think thats not a bad description. 

How does Australia leverage the capabilities and quality of its higher learning institutions like universities to provide it with a strategic advantage in the future? 

The commentary around the defence industry partnership, thats actually real and its worked. Its working. I think back only really probably three years and we went through this 180 degree pivot around Australian industry content, the direction from the first principles review that industry was to be an element of fundamental input to capability. And that has made a real difference. Were now talking about multiyear partnerships. We’re talking about deep engagement and levels of trust. I think the next step is, how do we create that same level of engagement into our research and development sector?

Some of that will be the vibrant start-up companies, but some of that also is our university sector. At the moment, its still relatively transactional out there. You bid on a funding proposal linked to X or Y either through the research council or through the next-gen tech fund, etc. I think the next step in the maturity around that relationship will be multiyear partnerships and with deeper funding. 

Now, thats going to be necessary because there are real requirements around security. The simple reality is that if youve got... If Defence puts money into the research sector, it expects that its the beneficiary of that material, which means data is protected, which means we have access control, and we know whos worked on the research and who they are, etc.

That all costs money, and organisations can, and will, invest if we can get in to this more partner relationship and take deeper, long-term views. Now, I know the next Chief Defence Scientist has a very mature view of this. Shes come out of the research sector herself, and Im already aware that she is looking to eventually look out across the university sector and see hotspot centres of excellence that have security in place and that have access control and we know whos working on issues, and that the sector itself is coordinating amongst itself so best of class research is fed through.

The really good news though is just the extraordinary innovation thats out there, and Ill give a plug for three... Happen to be young men in this case that I met at Monash. For those out there interested in social media, they tweet as soda labs and they are ultimately an activist group who monitor the performance of the internet.

They can tell you if the internet is being suppressed in Venezuela and geo-located in what particular suburb, and they monitor those sort of things.

Now, these are great young people doing good in the world with a fantastic platform and creating a linkage where elements of that, exploring this notion of information warfare.

Lets say there was an election going on in the Solomon Islands and knowing how the internet was performing, knowing who might be seeking to influence, etc. Theyre going to be important for us as nations to understand that space. Weve got great young people out there thinking about solutions to these things, so its about, how do we bridge this gap and bring people like them and the defence and national security sector together?

And its one of the most enjoyable things Ive stumbled across since I left. Because frankly, if theyd seen my academic transcript from my undergraduate days, they never would have let me through the doors at Monash University. So Im very pleased to be able to contribute.

The full podcast interview with Major General (Ret’d) Gus McLachlan is available here

On Point: The changing nature of the national security space
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