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Australian gov promises new cyber capabilities despite “massive skills shortage”

The country is investing $9.9 billion to triple its offensive cyber capabilities and double its cyber hunt and response activities

The Australian government is looking to boost its cyber capabilities through $9.9 billion in funding, in a move that has left the opposition questioning how it will recruit new cyber professionals from an already heavily contested talent pool.

Australia revealed its 2022-2023 budget on Tuesday, with the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), its electronic spy agency, set to receive $9.9 billion over 10 years.

This will deliver what the government is calling REDSPICE, a Resilience, Effects, Defence, Space, Intelligence, Cyber, and Enablers package.

The Australian government has described it as the largest ever investment in the country's intelligence and cyber capabilities, which will double ASD’s size, creating 1,900 new jobs over the next decade, including programmers, software engineers, and data analysts. It will also bolster its commitment to Australia’s Five-Eyes and AUKUS trilateral partners, while supporting a secure Indo-Pacific region.

The funding will be spread over 10 years, with $4.2 billion being spent in the first four-year budget cycle. However, it's only worth $588.7 million in new funding in these first four years, as the government has partly offset the package with savings from the defence portfolio.

REDSPICE is set to triple ASD’s offensive cyber capabilities and double its cyber hunt and response activities, delivering a strategic advantage for Australia over the coming decade and beyond. The government said the package will help ASD to keep pace with the rapid capabilities of potential adversaries as well as being able to counter attack and protect the nation’s most critical systems.

However, Brendan O'Connor, the shadow minister for defence, called it a flashy announcement in a post titled “The (Red) spice must flow, but can the Morrison government deliver it?”.

“The cyber security sector already faces a massive skills shortage after years of neglect under the Morrison-Joyce Government,” said O’Connor. “The Government needs to outline where it will find the 1,900 extra cyber professionals it plans to recruit to ASD from an already heavily contested talent pool.”

He underlined that the skills shortage is compounded by a massive backlog in security clearances the government has allowed to develop, leaving many recruits waiting more than a year before they can begin roles. O’Connor said REDSPICE would significantly increase the pressures on this already clogged process.

Of the $4.2 billion promised to the programme over its first four years, only $588.7 million is new money, highlighted O’Connor. The rest is offset from defence.

“Given the rapidly escalating cyber threats facing the nation, Australians can’t afford for REDSPICE to become the latest major defence capability project that never makes it from announcement to delivery,” said the MP.

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To put further stress on this, the government is also slashing the number of spaces in its Global Talent visa programme from 15,000 in 2021-22 to 8,448 in 2022-2023. This comes only a year after it decided to increase the number of spaces on the programme from 5,000 to 15,000.

The programme launched in November 2019 and aims to attract the best tech talent from around the world. It targets 10 future-focused sectors, including financial services, space, digitech, health, energy, education and defence. In 2020-2021 it attracted 9,584 migrants, as the country aimed to attract talent to help the country rebound from the pandemic and drive economic growth.

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