Today it’s an absolute pleasure and privilege to welcome the Minister for Defence, Minister Dutton, and General Greg Bilton, the Chief of Joint Operations to ASD’s newest multi-classification and multi-agency facility here. This week in fact is a profound moment for the Australian Signals Directorate. Tomorrow, we celebrate 75 years since the inception of the ASD through the Defence Signals Bureau in 1947. Yesterday, we acknowledged the Government’s investment in ASD of $9.9 billion over the next ten years – an investment which will see ASD prepare to deliver for the next 75 years. It’s an investment that will ensure that we have the intelligence capabilities; intelligence capabilities that prevent strategic shock, that protect and support our military operations that enable us to defend to our best capacity our most critical and priority networks, and where necessary, to deliver offensive cyber impacts and the deterrence associated with that.
One of our most important fundamental and historic missions has been of course to support military operations and the investment in REDSPICE will ensure that we’re able to continue that deep, long historical integration of Defence and ADF personnel, all services within ASD,
to support military operations when deployed, to support their networks and to ensure that they have the right defensive skills and capabilities at hand. On that note, I introduce Greg Bilton, the General and Chief of Joint Operations to say a few words.
Thank you Abi. Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Contemporary operations require that we combine the effects that are generated by our Navy, our Air Force and our Army with cyber and space effects.
The operational art is to actually combine those things in a way that ensures that our force is successful in operations, that is able to defend itself effectively, and it’s able to conduct offensive operations in an effective way.
REDSPICE is an investment that enhances our ability to do exactly that: To detect malicious activity on our networks; to defend our command and control networks and the systems that we use to war fight; to be able to take those capabilities and apply them in any environment across the globe.
This significant investment will build another level of skill and capability, not just in the Australian Defence Force, but in the Australian Signals Directorate that will contribute to the day-to-day operations. They already do – this will enhance their ability to do so.
The current Russian invasion of Ukraine gives you a very clear indication – a most recent indication – of how cyber capabilities are used to advance military tactics and activities associated with that particular invasion. Attacks on civil systems, attacks on military systems – these happen at the strategic level – government-based infrastructure, as well as at the tactical level.
Cyber effects are used in a range of ways to disrupt and in cases destroy capabilities on networks, and we are very fortunate to have a significant investment that’ll ensure that we can better detect activity on our networks, better defend our organisations and, where necessary, take much stronger offensive action. Thank you.
General, thank you very much. I want to say thank you very much, firstly, to the staff here that we dealt with this morning, incredible people who work day and night, literally 24/7, to keep Australians safe.
As Abi pointed out before, the 75-year history of the Australian Signals Directorate in its different iterations, has kept our country safe and deterred adversaries from their actions.
We know that the level of sophistication is significant, we know that our country is a target because we are a western democracy, because there is the ability to attack with ransomware, and it’s a business model for a country like North Korea or other very significantly sophisticated crime syndicates who quite often work with those state actors.
So, it’s a proud 75-year history here at the ASD, and this is the most significant investment that’s ever been made in our country’s history into our cyber defences.
It’s a $10 billion investment over the course of 10 years and it is front-end loaded deliberately. We want to bring on the additional staff, the 1,900 staff, in locations, not just here in Canberra, but in Brisbane, in Melbourne. We’ll embed more people in the United States, the United Kingdom and with partners otherwise and, it allows us to deal with the reality.
As General Bilton pointed out, we’re not just dealing with what we’re seeing on the ground and as reported on our television screens in Ukraine now in a modern setting. The opening days of any modern conflict will include cyberattacks and the attempts to degrade systems.
It’s also incredibly important to understand that there’s a high level of deniability. So a state actor like China could attack our banking system, could attack our energy network and they could do it through third parties where they can deny their activities, and yet they can be sponsoring it in the background and paying for it and facilitating it.
We need to be realistic about this threat and Australia is already under attack online and the investment that we’re making here gives us – as Greg pointed out – the best capability of defending ourselves, but importantly in the current environment, in the Indo-Pacific, with the great uncertainty that is ahead of us, it provides a deterrence against those who would seek to attack our country.
I’m incredibly proud of the work that ASD do in keeping people safe online, but also their most important priority, and that is to support the operations of the Australian Defence Force. They keep our people safe. They’ve done that over the course of our time – 20 years in the Middle East most recently – but on a day-to-day basis they provide support in the operations with the SAS and others involved in the defence of our country.
So, I’m incredibly proud of the people here, the way in which they conduct themselves, the way in which they’re respected globally.
When I speak to my counterparts in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in particular, we have a world-leading capability here at the Australian Signals Directorate, and that’s why we have invested so significantly in the ASD because we believe that they can continue to be and must continue to be a part of the defence of this country.
I also want to acknowledge the work of General Bilton and his team in the response to Operation Flood Assist. Our thoughts and prayers really go out to those, again, who have been flooded in northern New South Wales.
We have about 3,300 personnel on the ground in northern New South Wales and, as you know, we’ve pre-positioned people before each of these weather events and for people to be flooded again within a matter of days is a devastating blow for them.
But I want to provide the reassurance that the men and women of the ADF are out there again today and will be providing support to those local communities who have been impacted again.
It just shows that the breadth of operational requirement that falls under Greg in many situations. The work that we’re doing in aged care; a couple of months ago we had a dire situation in aged care and we still have some personnel within aged care facilities and they are doing incredible work.
I just wanted to pay tribute to all of those who are wearing uniforms, not just in this building, not just in the name of defending us online, but also those who are working on the ground in aged care facilities, in flood-affected regions. They do incredible work and we’re very proud of the work that they do. Happy to take any questions.
If I could just ask the General something quickly; Lieutenant General are you concerned at the prospect of the Chinese military presence in Solomon Islands, and what can the ADF do if that were to occur?
Yes, so the Solomon Islands appears to be making an agreement with the Chinese. I’m not sure that that’s been formally signed. It does involve security forces, particularly police and police training.
That has been for us a very important aspect of our relationship with the Solomon Islands, has been to provide training to the Solomon Islands police force. Our training will continue.
So I guess we find ourselves in a circumstance where we will be present in the Solomon Islands and so too will the Chinese, seeking to provide training and support to the same organisations.
Of course, our relationship is much broader than that, both in terms of aid and assistance that’s provided through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but it is an unusual circumstance for us to be interfacing with the Chinese in the Solomon Islands and we’ll, I guess – they will and we will – get an understanding of how they intend to support the Solomon Islands police force.
And if that involves some sort of temporary stationing of vessels, would that concern you?
It does change the calculus if Chinese navy vessels are operating from the Solomon Islands. They’re in much closer proximity to the Australian mainland, obviously, and that would
change the way that we would undertake day-to-day operations particularly in the air and at sea. We would change our patrolling patterns and our maritime awareness activities.
Minister, off the back of that, would it be easier to get an understanding of the Chinese activity in the Solomons if we had a direct communication with the new Ambassador? How do you feel about the Prime Minister sort of knocking back that invitation?
I think the Prime Minister has been very clear in relation to his decision, which I think is entirely appropriate, not to meet with the Chinese Ambassador.
The conduct of the Chinese Government toward Australia, toward Japan, toward India, the disrespect I think that’s shown toward some of the Pacific Island nation leaders, I mean this all adds up to a course of conduct that China’s embarking on.
None of the rest of us have changed. We want a normalised relationship with China. We want there to be a continuing trade relationship with China, but the aggression that we’re seeing in the South China Sea, the military presence now in 20 points in the South China Sea, the East China Sea activities against Japan, these are all deeply concerning.
Let’s be realistic about the direction of China under President Xi. I think Australians have been quite shocked – as the rest of the world has – by the relationship between Russia and China, and quite shocked that China hasn’t put pressure on Russia to withdraw from the Ukraine, in fact the complete opposite.
So, I think we would want to see a change in direction from China as quickly as possible and, frankly, I think the free world wants to see that as well.
Minister, just on that, Foreign Minister Lavrov said in a video last night, released ahead of a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he said, “We together with you and our sympathisers will move towards a multipolar democratic world order”. What do you interpret that to mean?
I think we can put a lot of the propaganda aside and look at the actions more so than the words. I think Russia has expressed their intent through their incursion, through their invasion into Ukraine.
I think really what we need to be focusing on now and not distracted by flourishes and different statements, is the fact that women and children are dying today in Ukraine and we want that to come to an end.
We don’t want war; we do not want conflict and every investment that we’ve made in this Budget – the investment that we’re making at the ASD – is designed to deter that and to make sure that we can maintain peace into the future.
That’s what Prime Minister is absolutely dedicated to, as am I. We have worked for a long period of time in the NSC to make the appropriate investments, to skill our people appropriately, to give them the equipment that they need because this is a very different world than it was even five years ago, and it is a very precarious outlook in our region and in Europe as well, and we need to be realistic and understand that threat.
Given the changing circumstances in our region, why has the Budget cut the Defence Cooperation Program at the very time China is stepping up?
Andrew, I just think you need to look at – I’ve seen some of the commentary on that – but the investment that we’ve made and the support that we’re providing, that we’re picking up the cost on, you’ve obviously seen significant support to Tonga and other operations that have been underway, some of that is BAU for us and some of it we’ve absorbed the cost on.
So, there’s been no reduction in the effort. In actual fact, the engagement, the Pacific step-up, the work that we’ve done, I think we’ve demonstrated that we are not just sincere friends, but we’re part of a family and we don’t want that to change.
We don’t believe it’s in the best interests of the Solomon Islands to be engaging in an exercise that could lead to a military presence in the Solomon Islands. Frankly, I think that’s the view of many of the neighbours and others within the Indo-Pacific, and we’ve been very clear about that.
And to follow up on that, the Budget also talks about a $1.5 billion investment in the Northern Territory. Is this an alternative to the Chinese-leased port that was weighed through a few years ago?
Well, there’s a massive commitment from the Government into the Northern Territory, and in fact into regional Australia, and that does look at port development and ways in which we might be able to support through contracts from Defence, for example, the underpinning of a business model and we’ll have more to say about that in due course.
But of course, we’re here to talk about REDSPICE Andrew, and I know you want to ask questions about it, but it is a $10 billion investment over 10 years; 1,900 staff and it reflects the fact that we are at war on cyber now.
We are under attack and we’re going to defend ourselves and we’re going to make sure that we can give our analysts and those people who need the support; those hackers that we employ, the young people who are coming out of universities, the collaboration with international partners, that is all industrialised in this $10 billion investment. I’m incredibly proud of the work that’s done here at the ASD and I think people need to have a realistic understanding of what is happening online. It’s essentially the equivalent scenario of what we’re seeing in real life in Ukraine at the moment.
Australia is under attack online and other countries like us every day; attempted attacks on our energy networks, on our banking system – if our banking system was taken out by a state actor, and we weren’t able to settle transactions or tap and go for a fortnight – that would damage confidence, it would damage the economy.
The ransomware attacks that we’re seeing on small businesses, the identity theft that we’re seeing on older Australians, kids who are being groomed online. We’ve got to be realistic about that threat level. It’s increasing and we need to deal with it and respond to it, and we’re doing that through this investment.
Minister, how are you going to deliver on the 1,900 additional workers when the industries that already rely on a STEM workforce are struggling to fill those positions?
I think as Rachel Noble, who is not able to be here today because she’s a close contact in isolation – I think she’s itching to be here I suspect Abi, but not here today unfortunately, but does an amazing job as the leader of this organisation – but I think as she’s pointed out in the media today, I mean one of the great things about the Australian Signals Directorate and the ACSC, is that people want to work here. It’s exciting. They have the ability to work within Defence and for Defence and with partner agencies.
We had something like 9,000 applications last year for jobs here. So we will be able to fill these positions. The great thing about that for the industry is that people, you know, ultimately will leave and go on to a different job within the private sector, within the Government sector, and the skillset they’ve been able to build up here is a remarkable asset for them and for the organisation they’re going to.
So there’s an enormous opportunity for people to work here, and I think we’ve demonstrated over a number of years here at the ASD, that we can attract and retain people.
Minister, just on REDSPICE, is there any evidence this year that the number of cyber-attacks in Australia have increased either in their number or in their seriousness?
Certainly in their number, and yes, in terms of the level of sophistication, the way in which – I mean we had an unclassified briefing upstairs, but without going into the classified elements of it – Australia has had significant attacks on our Government departments, on the Electoral Commission, on businesses. We see in Japan a very significant attack on Toyota, so supply line disruptions…
…Has there been any…
…including this year in our country, and every year. I mean we ramp up our response to it because Australia is a rich target and that’s the reality.
What are the industries that have been targeted this year, though?
Well, we’ve seen attempts on energy industries – or energy companies – within our economy. We see regular attacks, daily attacks, on the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Signals Directorate, other agencies, because in part, China is one of those adversaries online.
They’re hovering up intellectual property from law firms that are engaging with Chinese companies. They’re involved in a collection of people’s personal records. We saw attacks over the course of COVID, which caused us great concern.
Nothing abated over that period, and as people have spent more time online, we’ve become bigger targets because people are conducting Teams meetings online, Zoom meetings, and in many cases that is a target of collection.
So again, we don’t see it on the television screens each day. We don’t see it in a way…those tragic scenes are rolling out in Ukraine, but there is a war going on, on the internet, and we’re a target and we need to deal with it, and we’re doing that through REDSPICE.
Just on floods, parts of northern New South Wales under water again, second time in a month. How many ADF are there at the moment helping out? Is it time to get a specialised natural disaster task force so that our ADF can be concentrating on the other things that are happening at the moment?
Well, we’ve got about 3,300 staff, personnel in northern New South Wales at the moment doing incredible work. As I said before, we pre-positioned people and assets.
We did it much more quickly and on a much greater scale than we did in 2011, and very deliberate in my discussions with Greg and with the CDF and the leadership team at the time that we wanted to be in that proactive position.
Of course, that’s the skillset that the ADF brings, the logistics and the ability to move people and equipment quickly, to respond to rescues. Over 130 people rescued from precarious positions, many of them potentially would have drowned without being evacuated or winched out of that dreadful worst hour of their life.
The work that’s been undertaken over the course of the last few weeks means that people have had their businesses cleaned out, there’s been a response to households and to council requests in northern New South Wales, in South-East Queensland, in the Greater Sydney basin as well. We’ve been obviously over a vast distance and period, but a period of time – extended protracted period of time.
I guess would you like to see those people…
No I wouldn’t. I don’t want to see a sort of standing force of 7,500 people. I think we’ve got the capability within the Australian Defence Force, and I had think when you do the sums on the 7,500 people who would be deployed for floods or for responses otherwise, I think the capability we’ve got within the Australian Defence Force is remarkable.
I think we’re very fortunate to have those men and women in the jobs that they perform and for a couple of weeks, or for a month, or whatever it takes, as we’ve seen in natural disasters before, the Australian Defence Force step up – and they want to.
I think it’s also an important interface for people in uniform to understand the people that they work for, that I work for, and that’s the Australian public. I think it’s good for them to see firsthand what’s happening in people’s lives, the tragedy, and I also think there’s an important, very tangible benefit when people see those uniforms rolling into a place like Lismore. It lifts the spirits.
People have corresponded with me over the course of the last couple of weeks and you can feel the emotion in the emails and the accounts that they’ve sent, where the ADF has turned up, and it’s turned their life around. I think there’s a particular value in that.
But there are other agencies we are providing support to. Defence Relief Australia, I think, is one such agency who do an incredible job and we’ll work more with them into the future.
But I just couldn’t be prouder of the work that’s been down by the ADF over the course of Flood Assist and it continues today.
Minister, one more on REDSPICE. The funding for it is it coming out – or has been rebalanced from the integrated investment program. What programs are being delayed in order to allow this investment?
There’s new money going into this program and it’s paid for within the IIP, as you know, and we’ll make more announcements about more projects actually that are coming up that I think we must fund to defend our country.
We are in a very uncertain time. It’s sobering when you consider what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment, but we shouldn’t take peace in the Indo-Pacific for granted either.
China is on a path and it’s an aggressive one, not just toward us, but toward many nations, including Japan, India, and the military presence now – against the commitments given to President Obama at the time in the South China Sea – and the attempts to set a base up in PNG or elsewhere in our part of the world, it’s realistic.
Nobody is exaggerating or making that up. Look at the open-source comments of President Xi and the administration as to what their intent is. We need to do deal with that.
We’re investing more and more every year into the Australian Defence Force. I’m incredibly proud of the men and women who work here at the ASD and the ACSC and all of those agencies who are involved in the work here, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to fund them in the way in which we have in REDSPICE. Thanks very much.