Targeted technology investment – the key theme of the national security budget

Augmented reality experiments for the maritime environment
Augmented reality experiments for the maritime environment © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

The winter fog that is blanketing Canberra at this time of year has been lifted somewhat with the return of Parliament, and the heat and light of Budget Estimates this last fortnight.

Estimates flings the Budget back into the spotlight, as Senators question Ministers and senior officials on anything fitting within the broadest definition of public money spending. Coverage continues to focus on the big-ticket and big-spending healthcare, education and tax reforms, and also predictably on deficit control. But beyond the headlines, the Budget also contained a handful of national security-related funding measures you probably haven’t heard much about. While small by comparison, the money dedicated to national security meaningfully targets key priorities outside the Defence portfolio and deserves a little more attention.

A quick glance at the Budget papers show funding will flow to the well-known disciplines of counter-terrorism, border security, intelligence and the popular catchall of cyber security. However, there is an underlying theme across most of the measures – technology.

Technology is changing the nature of, and Australia’s exposure to, national security threats. Indeed, it is the challenge presented by technology that is garnering headlines around the world in the wake of the London terror attacks at the weekend. The recent WannaCry cyber attack is another such example. Unsurprisingly, technology is also transforming how the national security community counters these threats. The Budget measures show how some of the national security agencies are addressing the threats. So what were some of the more notable allocations?

The big national security winner from the Budget is the Australian Federal Police (AFP), receiving an additional $321.4 million over four years from 2017/18. As Jacinta Carroll notes in her piece for The Strategist, the AFP, along with many of the intelligence agencies, received several funding boosts in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombing. This funding reflected the greater demands being placed upon the AFP. But for the AFP, like many other agencies, the demands of successive governments have not abated and the challenge presented to our nation’s security from cyber criminals, organised criminals and ideologically-motivated criminals is growing more complex and constant.

The next big winner was the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This prominent agency has been on a transformation journey for the last few years. Anyone who has returned to Australia by plane recently will have noticed the upgrades to the customs and immigration processes at airports. The technology-enabled processing not only provides more efficient transport of goods and people across borders, but also allows for a risk-based approach to at-the-border processing. The provision of $185.4 million will continue this reform process. Very little will probably be evident to most bleary-eyed travellers, because again, the money will be spent on the important enabling technology.

Finally, other small national security measures will go to counter-terrorism efforts and the intelligence agencies. There is $7.2 million being given to the Australia-New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee to “ensure investment in the coordination and implementation of the national counter‑terrorism framework keeps pace with the increasing demands of the evolving terrorist threat environment.” This money goes to a little-known Commonwealth-State body that helps ensure that across the Commonwealth and across the Tasman, our counter-terrorism capabilities are being targeted effectively. While unquestionably small, the money should make a big difference to that small but important body and is especially timely given what has just transpired in London and Manchester.

In a Budget focused on social and economic policy matters, dedicated counter-terrorism funding when coupled with a boost for the intelligence agencies (for which specific details are not released publicly) and funding for sustainable system enhancements, hints at the increasing awareness that we have entered a world where business as usual efforts won’t be enough. Boundless supplies of cash are rarely the answer to strategic and operational challenges. But funding for game-changing technology and systematic reforms in a manner that generates longer-term confidence in our agencies will help.


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