The Australian Defence Force has embraced cyber warfare, deception and disinformation through the internet as key elements of future military operations. However, newly declassified ADF papers provide no guidance on how efforts to influence and deceive adversaries will not also mislead the Australian public and media.
While the Australian government has in recent years highlighted the need to defend Australia from cyber threats including hacking and foreign spying, Australia’s preparedness and capabilities to undertake offensive cyber operations have remained a closely guarded secret. However, the release of the Australian Defence Force’s newly revised ”Information Activities” doctrine, approved by Defence chief General David Hurley last November, reveals that the ADF will engage in offensive ”information operations” in future military conflicts.
Declassified in response to a Fairfax Media freedom-of-information request, the new doctrine provides ”authoritative” guidance for planning Defence Force operations aimed at ”undermining the adversary’s ability to develop, disseminate and execute sound decisions”. Information operations are designed to ”persuade, convince, deter, disrupt, compel or coerce” audiences that include foreign governments and military commanders, local chiefs and communities, non-governmental organisations as well as ”domestic players such as the general public and government”.
Offensive measures to be employed by the ADF against adversaries include ”computer network operations” – otherwise known as cyber warfare – which are defined to include attacks on and exploitation of information and data networks. The ADF’s information operations doctrine emphasises the importance of degrading an enemy’s information systems as well as engaging in psychological warfare and deception. This includes “manipulation, distortion, or falsification of evidence … to influence the mind, decisions and actions of the adversary … to form inaccurate impressions about friendly forces, squander intelligence assets, or fail to use other resources to best advantage”.
Significantly the doctrine also refers to ”special technical operations” that use ”highly compartmented and closely protected” capabilities that are ”particularly useful” for offensive information operations. ”Some information-related capabilities are quite technical in nature and may require long lead times to be able to support the operation,” the document says. The newly released ADF doctrine notes that information operations often involve ”complex legal and policy questions requiring not just local review, but national-level co-ordination and approval”.
There is also an acknowledgment that the ADF must simultaneously deal with ”multiple audiences and voices” including the Australian public. However, there is no guidance on how propaganda and deception transmitted through the Internet including social media will be reconciled with ADF public affairs and media liaison activities that are ”the principal vehicle for the commander to maintain public support during the conduct of operations”. ”It is important to nurture public trust by providing clear, timely and accurate information in order to remain responsive to public expectations,” the ADF’s new doctrine says.
These new offensive capabilities, which were not discussed in the Australian government’s 2013 Defence white paper, have been developed by the top secret Australian Signals Directorate with support from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. It is understood the new capabilities range from denial-of-service attacks to sophisticated techniques to access foreign computer systems to destroy or change data including disseminating false information.
Disclosures of highly classified United States and British documents by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden have revealed that the US National Security Agency and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters have been developing offensive cyber warfare capabilities including ”information ops (influence and disruption)”, computer hacking, black propaganda and and ”using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world”.
These capabilities have been discussed at highly classified signals intelligence conferences held by the “5-eyes” intelligence partners – the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In a recently published academic paper, signals intelligence and cyber warfare experts Professor Des Ball and Dr Gary Waters noted that the Australian Signals Directorate is ”a privileged party to cyber warfare developments in the United States and the United Kingdom”.
Offensive capabilities canvassed by Ball and Waters include use of cyber techniques to access electronic components in weapons systems, including ”penetrating the ‘firewalls’ protecting avionics systems and using wireless application protocols to insert ‘Trojan horses’. ”This would conceivably allow Australian cyber specialists to effectively hijack adversary aircraft (and to choose between hard or soft landings for them).”
”Australia strives to ensure that nothing is disclosed about these activities,” Ball and Waters observe. ”But there are aspects of operational planning which ultimately cannot be disguised, including the development and assimilation of doctrine within the ADF and the procurement of particular capabilities.”