A record spend of $195 billion for Australia’s military over 10 years outlined Australia’s latest Defence White Paper has again laid bare a badly neglected degraded core IT and communications capability for essential systems that underpin day to day functions of the Defence Department.
Buried within hundreds of pages of top level spending detail on major weaponry and key equipment upgrades – including 12 new submarines – the document reveals Australia’s armed forces and its bureaucracy are still struggling badly to unify so-called enterprise systems and architecture amid the absence of a wider technology strategy.
The repair bill for the next big technology fix has come in at a whopping $5 billion over the next decade, with the White Paper candidly admitting previous modernisation efforts have fallen behind.
“There has been underinvestment in key enablers over the decade, including in the area of information and communications technology,” the White Paper says.
“This underinvestment has been compounded by Defence’s struggle to establish a coherent enterprise-level strategy for its complex and rapidly evolving information and communications technology domain.”
Put more simply, Defence’s core business systems – like payroll, finance and other enterprise applications and infrastructure – have now failed to keep up for so long that many are obsolete, hindering both efficiency and potentially execution capability at the pointy end.
“One of the highest priorities in the development of the Integrated Investment Program has been to address the systemic underinvestment in information and communications technology that has led to serious degradation across the network,” the White paper says.
“Key areas of the network need urgent remediation, in particular to address the shortcomings of outdated and in some cases obsolete systems that inhibit the conduct of day-to-day business within Defence, with overseas allies and partners, and with industry and the community more broadly.”
The overtly grim assessment comes despite efforts by Defence to pare back the number of siloed and bespoke systems that have proliferated across the organisation over the last 20 years.
The Department has also been chasing the vision of a single “Information Environment” and an integrated Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP) for almost as long, dating back to its first reformist Chief Information Officer, Patrick Hannan.
Size and necessary complexity clearly still remain major impediments amid an increased need for tight information security in the age of cyberwarfare.
“The current environment of around 800 networks, over 200 processing locations, and more than 3000 applications needs to be streamlined substantially to more manageable levels to improve both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the domain,” the White Paper says.
Shorter cycles adding pressure
A well acknowledged pressure on both Defence procurement and technology has been that the long lead times surrounding purchasing and development of new systems and infrastructure have historically put it at major disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with new developments.
The Defence White Paper not only rams home the present criticality of information and computing systems to the military and its supporting administration, but warns lead times before obsolescence are now getting much shorter than ever before.
It is also essential that Defence accelerates its efforts to modernise its information and communications technology infrastructure to take advantage of the rapidly advancing digital transformation that is occurring across the Australian economy more broadly.
“As technology life cycles continue to shorten, it will be critical that Defence is able to move more quickly to acquire information and communications systems; this will ensure that Defence maintains a technological edge, while also simplifying maintenance and security,” the White Paper says.
“Defence will need to be more agile and flexible if it is to meet its information and communications technology requirements in the decade ahead effectively.”
The White Paper adds that Defence will now get a helping hand from outside thanks to an undertaking to “work with the Digital Transformation Office to ensure that Defence’s plans reflect best practice.”
Stabilising the Core
In terms of cleaning out and unifying Defences core systems and infrastructure, the White paper has set out four key priorities to deliver a “Single Information Environment” (read applications and architecture) and a “transformation” of core ICT infrastructure.
The key priorities outlined are:
- a terrestrial communications project, which is upgrading, replacing and standardising the backbone of the Defence information and communications technology system;
- the Next Generation Desktop project, which is improving the end user computing environment in Defence by delivering Defence networks and applications through a single desktop;
- the Centralised Processing project, which is consolidating and updating Defence’s computing infrastructure and re-hosting applications from around 280 data centres to 11 within Australia and 3 overseas; this project will address obsolescence, lack of standardisation and the current high costs of ownership of a distributed information and communications technology environment;
- Delivering a rationalised, secure, contemporary information and communications technology environment.
Future wars: quantum, hypersonics and directed energy
Despite a picture of enterprise level neglect, Australia’s war machine is redoubling its efforts to stay at least one step ahead of its potential and known adversaries by sinking technology $730 million into what it calls “targeted science and technology.”
The White paper outlines “key drivers” set to shape the development of a “future force” from science and technology will include:
- increasing global threats in cyber and electronic warfare domains
- increasing global access to technology necessitating a capability edge derived through decision-making superiority and enhanced human performance
- the need for agile, evolutionary upgrade of military equipment to keep pace with technology advances and evolving (often asymmetric) threats
- the force multiplier effect of a highly adaptable and integrated joint force
- the need for more persistent, pervasive and timely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities
- the significant advantage that could be achieved by reducing the cost of force preparedness and sustainment while increasing force availability.
However with technology now embedded at the bleeding edge, the document is predicably circumspect about where it wants to develop sharper teeth and throw weight in terms of science.
Even at a top level, the “priority areas of work” are a far cry from a decade ago. Some of the more ambitious efforts include:
- space systems – de-risking Defence’s dependence on space-based systems through technical expertise and enhanced capability agility
- cyber operations – establishing a research and development capability to address the threats presented by information and communications technology dependencies and vulnerabilities within military systems
- quantum technologies – including increasing the security of military and government communications and computing through strengthened encryption
- enhanced human performance – including enhancing soldiers’ resilience and data interpretation abilities
- medical countermeasure products – establishing and coordinating a national infrastructure for the rapid development of medical countermeasure products to provide effective protection of Defence personnel from a range of chemical, biological and radiological threats, pandemics and emerging infectious diseases
- multi-disciplinary materiel systems – investigating technological advances to reduce detection of ADF platforms and improve ballistic and shock protection
- integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance – effective enterprise intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance integration and interoperability with our allies will provide a capability edge through superior battlespace awareness.
- trusted autonomous systems – researching developments in trusted autonomous systems that may have the potential to support ADF capability in the future, such as the use of autonomous vehicles for resupply
- new technologies – researching technologies emerging globally, including advanced sensors, hypersonic and directed energy technologies, to remain informed of potential future threats or opportunities