Why Australia needs a national intelligence threat assessment
29 Oct 2021|

The 16th of September 2021 will be remembered as the day Australia’s strategic status changed forever. The AUKUS security partnership and its headline announcement that the United Kingdom and the United States will assist Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, and no doubt other yet-to-be-announced capabilities, give the country the strategic weight that befits its status as the world’s 13th largest economy. Serious countries deal with serious threats in serious ways, and that requires a robust, serious threat assessment process.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison noted when he launched the 2020 defence strategic update in July last year, this has all come about because of the most serious deterioration in Australia’s strategic circumstances ‘since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s’. These are clear words indicating a dire threat.

Of course, the 2020 update’s threat perception and last month’s announcements have China written all over them—even though the update only mentions China twice out of the context of competition with the US or the South China Sea and the AUKUS agreement makes no mention of China at all.

One of the most significant aspects of the recent changes in Australia’s strategic circumstances is the rate at which we travelled from an easy economic partnership with China to a point where China felt emboldened enough to issue Australia with its list of 14 grievances. The speed and significance of this shift have of course caught many by surprise—especially the Australian people.

How can the government bring the public along for the ride in understanding the most significant changes in Australia’s national security environment since the late 1930s?

Because of the rapidity of this change, and the existential nature of the threat to Australia as a sovereign nation, the government needs to conduct an annual national threat assessment. The process would draw on all sources and the outcomes would aid the development of national security strategy and risk assessments, and, just as importantly, would increase public understanding and awareness of the threats we face. The product of this process would be classified and unclassified versions of the threat assessment.

The assessment would take the perception of a threat through a coherent, professionalised and apolitical process so that we understand what it is—and isn’t.

Threat assessments, or TAs in the intelligence business, are a key part of the intelligence process and are important artefacts that clearly state the sources and means of threat actors and their assessed intentions. Fundamentally, the concept of threat is built around the notions of capability and intent. For a threat to exist, the actor must have the capability or means to harm you or your interests and the will or intent to inflict that harm.

The TA process examines and articulates adversary capabilities and intent using robust analytical techniques, and the result is a statement of the level of threat—low, moderate, high, and so on,with each term having a precise meaning.

The threat assessment process is a normal, established, repeatable, updatable and robust intelligence process and a TA is one of the most common intelligence products.

In Australia, we don’t have a history of such a public process or document (nor do the other Commonwealth members of the Five Eyes, for that matter). We do, however, have a laudable tradition in making apolitical public policy through publicly available reports by the Productivity Commission, the Australian National Audit Office and the Treasury. So why wouldn’t we do the same for the most significant of national security threats?

Threat assessment as a term is being increasingly used in the contexts of counterterrorism, cybersecurity and, more recently, foreign interference. For example, the 2017 independent intelligence review employed the term ‘threat assessment’ only in the context of the National Threat Assessment Centre and its focus on counterterrorism.

In a significant change, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, recently made two annual threat assessments publicly available—the first in 2020 and the other in 2021. The most recent even includes a 30-minute video of Burgess’s address.

The Australian Signals Directorate has released threat reports annually since 2015 (except in 2018). The 2019–20 report was produced by the directorate’s newly established Australian Cyber Security Centre, in collaboration with the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

The ASIO threat assessments are a welcome addition to public awareness but, as per ASIO’s remit, they focus on counterterrorism, espionage and foreign interference. The ACSC’s reports likewise focus on cyber threats.

These documents are domestically oriented, specialised and focused. They aren’t threat assessments that span the entire national intelligence community—especially the agencies that have foreign intelligence roles. Instead, they are more akin to the US government’s annual homeland threat assessment. They are also public versions of originally secret assessments.

In December 2018, as recommended by the 2017 intelligence review, the Office of National Intelligence was formed out of its predecessor, the Office of National Assessments. ONI is responsible for ‘enterprise-level management of the national intelligence community‘ is the ‘single point of accountability’ to the prime minister and the cabinet’s National Security Committee for all intelligence matters, both foreign and domestic.

It therefore makes sense that the head of ONI, the director-general of national intelligence, lead the national threat assessment process and coordinate input from across the national intelligence community, and that the assessment’s focus be an ‘all threats’ one.

What might this look like? I’ll deal with that question in my next post.