National security, Science and technology | Australia

24 September 2015

New thinking about Australia’s security is needed, particularly in the area of cyber threats, Rory Medcalf writes.

There is an alarming lack of awareness in the wider community about our profound and growing dependence on cyberspace, not only for information and communication but also to sustain our material wellbeing.

The Internet is now the Internet of things and on its way to becoming the internet of everything.

Yet the dependence of our real economy, our real society, our real polity on the digital economy is yet to translate into a truly concerted national effort – involving comprehensive coordination among the private sector, state governments and the Commonwealth – to secure this critical interest.

Our future wellbeing, including economic competitiveness, rests on ensuring a national cyber-security edge.

Politics and culture mean that security debates related to terrorism and extremism are going to be divisive unless handled with exceptional sensitivity.

Cyber security, on the other hand, seems an issue ready-made for national consensus and big initiatives to anticipate and minimise future risk.

Here we have a security issue ready made for a government focused on innovation, the future and our national competitive edge.

Here is a security issue that is about unity and partnership, with a lead role for the private sector.

A national cyber security strategy should involve major investment in the cyber skills our banks, telecommunications providers and security agencies increasingly need.

Image by Christiaan Colen on Flickr.

Image by Christiaan Colen on Flickr.

That is why the government’s whole-of-nation cyber security review this year has been an important process, and one that unfortunately tends to receive much less media attention than steps or missteps on counter-terrorism and border protection.

It is to be hoped that the new Prime Minister, with his well-known focus on and knowledge of matters to do with communications and innovation, will recognise the finalisation of a cyber strategy as an urgent priority.

Another vital interest for us is to preserve a rules-based order internationally, especially in our vast and dynamic Indo-Pacific maritime region, which is the new global centre of economic and strategic gravity.

This is the very order that is being eroded by the uncertainties around China’s growing military power and its patterns of affronting, acquisitive behaviour in the global maritime and cyber commons.

That behaviour is something that should seriously concern our business community and the wider public, not just our professional security caste.

This issue relates not only to the manufacture of militarised islands in the disputed South China Sea, or displays of power intended to shake confidence in the system of US alliances upon which regional order has relied.

The problem also relates to the widely reported theft of information from business and government in many countries. It has reportedly occurred on a massive scale in the United States. There is every reason to assume that we face this risk in Australia too.

A critical question for Australia, as a nation, is whether we should continue to quietly accept the erosion of the conditions underscoring our security and freedom of action.

Or, if we need to call out the concerning aspects of China’s actions beyond its borders, why will later be any better than sooner?

And what are we prepared to do, beyond words?

Image by NSA via Wikimedia Commons.

Image by NSA via Wikimedia Commons.

In a complex, uncertain, deeply connected world, vulnerable to shocks that can cascade rapidly across borders, our watchwords need to be resilience, adaptability and diversification.

Incidentally, these same principles ought to be applied to future defence planning – which is a reason why paying multi-billion dollar premiums to build warships and submarines in Australia could well prove to be a misplaced priority in national security terms. Simply put, building them in Australia will cost many billions of dollars more than building them elsewhere.

That money could be put to other purposes that would be good for national security but also for national wellbeing more broadly. For instance, it could go a long way towards investing in new defence capabilities and technologies – in space, cyber and unmanned, autonomous systems – to ensure we are at the winning edge of disruptive change.

Australia’s security interests are large and growing, our security capabilities are not keeping pace and there is a premium on partnerships to guard our interests in an uncertain world.

Those partnerships need to be with other nations, with the private sector and across the spectrum of the Australian community – hence the need for national security leadership focused on mobilizing greater unity through levelling with the public and explaining the challenges.

As a nation, we need a capacity constantly to refresh and improve our thinking on how global trends will intersect with our interests.

Those trends include the security impacts of such diverse yet interacting phenomena as disruptive technologies, social media, demographic change, resurgent nationalism, religious identity, energy demand, resource pressures, environmental degradation and climate change. And yes, the effects of climate change are a national security issue.

The most innovative thinking on these issues will not come from government or intelligence agencies alone. The shape of the future is a mystery, not a secret that can be crafted, stolen or protected.

The challenge is to identify emerging risks and the new patterns of cooperation we will need to mitigate them. Now is a time for new and inclusive thinking about Australia’s security.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Professor Medcalf. Read the full speech at: Watch a video of the speech below:

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