Australia does not have to wait ten or twenty years for its new submarines, or long-range missiles, to project effective military power against China.
It has the ability to use its cyber powers to attack strategic targets in China now, or as a deterrent, to counter that threat.
Cyberattacks aim to break into enemy military networks to disrupt or disable their systems. They can be used against various weapons and communication systems.
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Cyber forces are now an integral part of a nation’s wartime offensive capabilities. The United States is even now planning wartime cyberattacks against China, should the need arise. According to 2018 figures, Americans have a strength of about 240,000 defense personnel and contractors in place to contribute to cyber defenses and cyber attacks, with a third likely available to support the latter.
In the event of war, these US cyberattacks could continue across the full range of China’s war capability. The goal would be to gain what is called “decision dominance”. This is the “disintegration” of China’s systems and decision-making, “beating their offensive capabilities” – if we can interpret the comments of the former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidsonto be a reference to China.
Australia has been much more wary of discussing cybercrime than the US, but the two allies are following suit. Canberra is tripling the size of its offensive cyber forces Project Redspiceannounced last year.
It could attack military command and control assets anywhere in China in the event of war. Softer targets can be critical national infrastructure, such as the energy grid that supports the war effort.
Australia’s cyber power will remain small compared to the US. But it can also call on private domestic or foreign companies to design strike packages against China, as the US does.
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Australia is pursuing world-class offensive options in cyberspace. The AUKUS allies work closely together on cyber operations, and this area of activity is a major focus for the new grouping.
In 2020, the United Kingdom established a new organization, its National Cyber Powerdedicated to offensive strike operations.
As part of this “cyber three” alliance with the US and UK, Australia’s cyber power is likely to remain the country’s most powerful strike capability against China for decades to come.
Cyber security weakness in China
Of course, success is not guaranteed with cyber attacks. But causing large-scale disruption can be achieved with a highly focused effort at all phases of offensive cyber operations, especially in coordination with our allies.
The most important phase is the first: ensuring up-to-date information about the other side’s systems. The effort put into cyber-intelligence against the Chinese armed forces is, in fact, the basis of cyber-offensive teams, even if the intelligence people are not considered to have an “offensive” role.
China is adept at cybercrime. But contrary to popular belief, cybersecurity is not a strong point for China, and this makes it particularly vulnerable to wartime attacks. The International Institute for Strategic Studies has assessed that China has certain fundamental weaknesses that will take many years to overcome, including in its cybersecurity industry, education and policy.
Chinese leaders to believe they lag far behind the US and allies in terms of military cyber capability. This probably will limit their choices about starting a war over Taiwan.
Australia should not be shy about this offensive capability against China on political grounds, because China intends to do the same against us in the event of war.
China is already conducting cyber espionage on Australia and other countries in preparation for a major crisis. It’s almost sure develop capabilities disable enemy military systems and infrastructure if necessary.
Secretary of Defense Richard Marles recently reworked the long-held view that the more offensive capabilities we have, for example through submarines, the more the country can contribute to the Allied deterrence of potential aggressors.
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Australian political leaders must prioritize the military’s ability to strike targets in China on a large scale, in the unlikely event of war. And leaders must ensure that cyber forces have more highly trained people dedicated to this task and a more powerful domestic cyber industry.
For military and political leaders to take this path more forcefully, the Australian defense force will also need to reassess the balance of military power in Asia-Pacific to account for the cyber superiority of the US and its allies over China.
This could also enable Australians to feel more secure about potential Chinese military threats. The choices Chinese leaders might make in provoking a crisis will be dictated by their view that their military forces are not as competitive in this dimension of US and allied military might.