These are Turbulent Times for Australian National Security

By Nick Warner

Nick Warner most recently served as the Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) – Australia’s peak intelligence agency which reports directly to the Prime Minister. Before that, he served as the Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (2009-2017), the Secretary of the Department of Defence (2006-2009) and Senior Adviser (International) to the Prime Minister (2005- 2006).  He served as Special Coordinator of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (2003-2004) and currently serves as a Dragoman counsellor.  

This piece from Cipher Brief Expert Nick Warner was first published in The Australian and is re-published with permission from the author.

OPINION — We live in turbulent and fast changing times, and there’s work to be done on our national security agencies and architecture by whichever party wins Australia’s upcoming election.

With a boost in defence spending, the establishment of an Office of the National Security Advisor, a reviewed and revitalised DFAT, and a regular health check for the intelligence community, Australia’s national security community will be better prepared to meet the security challenges that lie ahead.

Australia is well served by the men and women who dedicate their careers to working quietly and effectively for the security of Australia, whether they be in DFAT, Home Affairs, Defence, the ADF, AFP or one of  our 10 intelligence agencies and entities. From this perspective, we’re in good shape to confront the challenges of the next decade. But those challenges will be more serious than the ones we faced in recent decades, and some of our national security structures and processes need to be sharper.

The Government and the Opposition are right to warn of the deteriorating international security situation. 

  • Just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in late February, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz described what Putin had done as a ‘Zeitenwende’ – a turn in the times, the end of an age. He was right. The war has already accelerated the trend away from globalisation as we knew it, led to further moves to protect supply chains, and also to a greater determination in Europe to move quickly to renewable energy. Defence budgets are going up, and Sweden and Finland are  moving to join NATO. And because Putin can’t afford  to lose, he is likely to escalate further.
  • On China, as Kevin Rudd has written, a dangerous decade lies ahead  as tensions between the US and China grow. And in our region, we now have the first security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, bringing with it the worrying possibility of a Chinese military facility.
  • The tech revolution – synthetic biology, quantum and nano technologies, robotics, additive manufacturing, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – is a game changer. A few years ago, Putin said that whoever wins the race to AI “will become ruler of the world”, determining who in future, has military advantage. And as the US National Security Commission on AI warned last year, China is winning that race.
  • We could be seeing the start of a worrying increase in the number of States looking to acquire nuclear weapons, as countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and South Korea watch the unfolding conflict in Ukraine, the further development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile    capability, and as the talks to freeze Iran’s nuclear program head from stalemate to possible collapse.
  • More and more nation States are also seeing the effectiveness of offensive cyber, and knowledge about how to conduct sophisticated cyberattacks is growing quickly. Imagine a world where there are 30 or more countries with that sort of sophisticated capability – rather than half a dozen at the moment – together with terrorist groups and criminal organisations, and where the risk calculus of those nation States isn’t as robust as ours. That time isn’t too far away.
  • While geo-politics is now back “with a vengeance”, as the head of ONI, Andrew Shearer, said recently, the threat of terrorism hasn’t gone away – in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, in West Africa or in South East Asia.
  • Then there’s the impact of climate change on national security – water and food shortages, humanitarian crises, mass migrations and political instability.
  • And against the background of all of this are the big and lingering questions about whether, after the dark days of Trump, the US can reinvent itself and whether US leadership will return? The response to Ukraine suggests yes. But the handling of Afghanistan, the tech revolution and the deep divisions within domestic US politics suggests no.

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With AUKUS and the revitalisation of the Quad, the Morrison Government has begun to lay down some strong new international security foundations that will serve us well in years to come.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief because National Security is Everyone’s Business.

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