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In face of cuts, Defence hunts for young cyber army

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Primrose Riordan

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Chief Defence Scientist and head of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation Dr Alex Zelinsky.

Chief Defence Scientist and head of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation Dr Alex Zelinsky. Photo: Supplied

The Defence Science and Technology Organisation, facing some of the biggest cuts  in its history, is  looking for new recruits to Australia's cyber army – a task that promises to be an uphill battle as Australia struggles to produce enough computer science engineers.

A cool $120 million is to be cut from the organisation responsible for some of the development of the country's cyber defences. Chief Defence scientist Dr Alex Zelinsky said, however, that savings were already under way through retirement programs and cuts to non-priority programs.

In a new push, Dr Zelinsky's lecture, on Friday at the University of Canberra, will attempt to brush away the cobwebs of mystery around DSTO and attract some of Australia's top computer scientists and engineers.

The DSTO is looking for new recuits into Australia's cyber army.

The DSTO is looking for new recuits into Australia's cyber army. Photo: Illustration: Karl Hilzinger

Cyber-army low on recruits

But highly skilled computer science graduates are increasingly in demand in the private sector and many industry experts say there are not enough cyber security soldiers popping out of the nation's universities.

"Having strong cyber security is critical to having a strong economy. It's not something you want to outsource," said Simon Kaplan, director of skills and industry transformation at National ICT Australia (NICTA). 

Mr Kaplan said graduates were divided between IT support workers and network engineers, the latter of which are taught to build new network defence and critical enterprise systems – the type Australia lacks. 

Australia's chief scientist Ian Chubb warned in February that school leavers' lagging interest in information technology degrees is fuelling a possible skills shortage.

The NICTA has previously warned that "Australia could miss the chance to build an internationally competitive cyber security industry if it doesn’t ... create market opportunities and challenging careers for our best computer scientists and software engineers."

Cyber wars heating up

DSTO will be partly responsible for supporting the new $24 billion joint strike fighters and the research and development of the nation's cyber security. 

Dr Zelinsky said funding from priority areas such as cyber security would not be cut. But many academics fear Australia's investment into cyber security is leaving the nation vulnerable to unknown threats.

"The next war that Australia is involved in will start in cyber space and we won't realise we are under attack until we have real problems," warned Tom Worthington, a lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology and former IT adviser to Defence.

He added that it took years to train people in cyber security.

The new ADFA "cyber range" training centre has begun schooling Australian defence forces in network security but it is understood the new cyber security centre announced under the Gillard government is yet to open.

"We need much larger investment in cyber security or we will be sitting ducks for an attack," Mr Worthington said.

Already under attack

Late last year a cyber strike brought down the Australian Federal Police website, part of a series of attacks on the organisation. The group believed to be responsible is also suspected of cyber attacks against the Royal Australian Air Force, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the spy agencies ASIO and ASIS.

RMIT lecturer in cyber security Dr Jidong Wang said "no countries invest enough [in cyber security], it’s a very important area", and that countries who do not invest enough are forced to rely on expertise of the major powers.

 Respected "ethical hacker" Jonathan Brossard stated in April that he believed the United States spies on Australia.

Cuts are nothing new to the defence scientists. At least 200 staff have left without replacements over the past two years. The latest budget will see DSTO's operating budget tumble from an anticipated $456 million by 2016-17 to less than $410 million.