Defence ICT strategy underpins sovereign tech capability

Dr Gary Waters

Recently I wrote an article for InnovationAus in their Innovation Papers series, titled ‘A Minister for ICT Capability would secure sovereign needs’. Since then, Defence has released its ICT Strategy.

Late last month, the Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite launched the 2022 Defence Information and Communications Technology Strategy. The strategy’s vision is for mission capable ICT amid a changing national security landscape.

In short, the strategy states that the consolidation and rationalisation of multiple disparate systems into standardised and connected military and enterprise capabilities is intended to reduce technical debt and improve cyber security across Defence.

Defence intends to gain a portfolio view of ICT, including transparency of spend, reduce its supply chain risks, and better collaborate with industry to improve cyber security, resilience and sovereign capabilities. Defence intends to fully integrate its ICT services and cyber security.

The strategy outlines four goals:

  1. Decision superiority for Defence – Information and communications technology empowers Defence decision-makers with access to information and insights for faster, better decisions in the modern battlespace.
  2. A connected and digital Defence – Defence is connected to communicate and collaborate through mission capable information and communications technology, when and where it is needed.
  3. ICT transformed to meet the mission – Defence embraces advanced, adaptable and responsive information and communications technology with a skilled and capable workforce ready for the digital age.
  4. ICT partnerships that drive advantage – Strong information and communications technology partnerships across whole-of-government, industry, academia, allies and international partners contribute to Australia’s security, resilience and sovereignty.

The Defence ICT Strategy is a fundamental contributor to a National ICT Strategy and its attendant sovereign ICT capability framework that I called for in the Innovation Papers piece.

However, I must point out that Australia’s ICT strategy involves much more than Defence. I argued that a national strategy and framework would enable Australia to establish a number of separate but related plans, such as:

  • a national cybersecurity capability plan;
  • a national digital infrastructure plan; and
  • a national sovereign data plan

Accompanying the Defence ICT Strategy was the Defence Cyber Security Strategy, which outlines how Defence will strengthen its cyber security posture over the next ten years.

However, there is not a specific Defence digital infrastructure plan nor a Defence sovereign data plan. These are all needed for a comprehensive suite of cyber and digital strategies and plans for Defence. But, more importantly, they are needed at the whole-of-nation level.

The Defence ICT Strategy mentions that the defence and civilian arms of government are linked by ICT, including a graphic that illustrates the intersection between various defence and civilian digital and cyber plans and strategies.

The strategy also discusses interoperability as involving “exchanges of trusted warfighting and battlespace information and intelligence with allies and partners over secure and survivable information and communications technology”.

Exchanges of information will also involve non-Defence telecommunications infrastructure, so we should be looking at this from a whole-of-nation perspective.

Indeed, the link between Defence and civilian government agencies and a national framework is explicitly mentioned: “Australian Government investment in information and communications technology is expected to deliver broader impacts across government agencies. An ambitious digital transformation agenda has been set: that Australia will be one of the top three digital governments in the world by 2025.”

And further on: “Australian Government data and information and communications technology, including critical infrastructure, must be a key priority when planning, designing, delivering, using and sustaining Defence’s information and communications technology capabilities. Defence has a unique opportunity to contribute to the Australian Government digital and cyber agenda.”

Not only does Defence have this unique opportunity to contribute, it is a fundamental part of the Australian Government digital and cyber agenda.

Sovereign capability is discussed, specifically as: “Defence will continue to build strong partnerships with industry and academia to address the national information and communications technology skills shortage and to support the development of sovereign capability to grow the required future workforce.”

The ICT workforce and its skills, as well as domestic technical capability, will all be sourced from the broader Australian society.

The strategy refers to agile and adaptable, future-focused capability to support rapid, data-driven battlefield decision making, as well as rapid scalability and the increased ability to securely move large volumes of data to where it is needed when it is needed, all of which will come through national digital transformation and strong domestic technical capability.

In discussing cyber capability, the strategy argues the need for advanced cyber capabilities to continuously protect and defend Australia’s interests. Those interests relate to both international and domestic ones, with critical infrastructure a key piece of the domestic fabric.

The strategy points out that Defence has finite ICT resources, and thus leverages industry to provide capabilities and capacity. Defence also provides a hint as to its data storage strategy by stating that a distributed systems architecture will span the network core between the central high-capacity data centres down to the peripheral edge-based centres.

In simple terms, this suggests that Defence will leverage data centres at scale in the core, supported by smaller data centres at the edge.

The strategy highlights the importance of data and interoperable data sharing: “Extracting value and insights from our data that support faster, better decisions is key to Defence’s decision superiority.

“Defence will be connected digitally to communicate and collaborate, including with our domestic and international partners. Information and communications technology is the backbone that integrates the Defence enterprise and the warfighting domains, contributing to the capability and effects of the Joint Force.”

Defence is talking about a national ICT backbone here.

And the strategy also states that Defence “values information and communications technology as a capability that is interoperable, secure, resilient and survivable, innovative and versatile – and can scale to meet Defence’s evolving needs and operations”. This is not a Defence capability, but rather, a national one.

Returning to the four goals, the first goal – decision superiority – underscores the connection between Defence and civilian arms of Government, as well as Industry: “Data, no matter its source, will be securely collected, protected, aggregated, stored and distributed across Defence, whole-of-government and with trusted partners.”

This goal also talks about investment in new network types and virtual distributed data centres that will increase the survivability of Defence’s Single Information Environment (SIE) and the ability to securely move large volumes of data to where it is needed, when it is needed.

These should all be part of a whole-of-nation framework of network types and virtual distributed data centres.

The second goal – a connected and digital Defence – focuses on Defence’s digital transformation ambition and future capability investments in next generation wireless networks and sovereign satellite capabilities, assuring the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, and ensuring that Defence remains connected to securely communicate, collaborate and co-ordinate where and when required.

These are all national aspirations, not just Defence ones, as is the need to operate in degraded and disconnected environments.

Similarly, the need to consolidate and rationalise multiple disparate systems into standardised and connected capabilities, thereby reducing technical debt and improving digital and cyber management practices to better secure and risk manage current systems, is a national endeavour.

Adopting Cloud and Edge Computing, as well as Infrastructure-As-A-Service (IAAS) and improved data analytics processing and management tools, is a whole-of-nation requirement for delivering faster, better decisions, whether on the move or not.

Defence also seeks new high-speed network services and enhanced scalable distributed hybrid-cloud services to facilitate movement and processing of large volumes of data securely, using modern enterprise and domain based applications, which again is a whole-of-nation requirement.

The third goal – transforming ICT to meet the mission – recognises that ICT is a capability in its own right, and not merely an enabler of other capabilities. In this respect, any capability demands a highly skilled and cyber capable workforce.

For Australia, just like Defence, the nation needs its people to utilise leading-edge ICT tools for a range of reasons, especially the capacity to continuously improve and adapt as circumstances change.

In Defence’s words, modified slightly, Australia needs a highly skilled digital, data and cyber capable workforce that embraces technology and values information and communications technology as a capability.

The fourth goal – driving advantage through ICT partnerships – sees ICT capability as an ecosystem, where Defence states that partnerships across whole-of-government, industry, academia, allies and international partners are all needed to contribute to Australia’s security, resilience and sovereignty.

The strategy states that Defence makes an important contribution to supporting the Government’s digital transformation agenda.

The strategy discusses Australia’s capable sovereign industrial base: “Defence has the support and expertise of industry for information and communications technology capability, including a sovereign industrial base that meets Australia’s security, self-reliance and resilience requirements.”

It also points out that industry partnerships contribute to reduced supply chain vulnerability and risk of disruption and, deliver an industrial and technological leap forward for specific capabilities.

Finally, this goal acknowledges that Defence’s ICT capability will contribute to the Australian economy through investment to support jobs and the growth of sovereign capabilities and contribute to the protection of Australian data, systems, networks and critical infrastructure.

This Defence ICT Strategy is an important contribution to a national sovereign capability but it needs to be lifted up to the whole-of-nation level, as I called for in my earlier piece.

Australia needs a dedicated Cabinet-level minister for building sovereign ICT capability in Australia, and a sovereign ICT capability framework to enable strategic prioritisation of the ICT capabilities we need, whilst building on the already strong foundations we have.

Dr Gary Waters served 33 years in the Royal Australian Air Force; served as a senior public servant in Defence and worked in the private sector as head of strategy for Jacobs Australia. He retired in 2013 and now works as an independent strategy consultant. He has written over 20 books or papers on air power, doctrine, strategy, cyber security, cyber warfare, logistics, space policy, and military history. He is a founding director of the Integrated Institute for Economic Research – Australia.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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