The nation’s largest joint military exercise could operate the “old fashioned way” following allegations a defence computer system had been compromised.
The nation’s largest joint military exercise could operate the “old fashioned way” following allegations a defence computer system had been compromised.

Soldiers allegedly left without $1.6bn battle computer

The Australian military might have to return to analogue ways during Talisman Sabre 2021 - their biggest biennial joint military exercise - in July after an alleged security breach was found in the $1.6 billion Israeli-made computer system they use.

But Elbit Systems of Australia Managing Director, Paul McLachlan, denies the battle management system (BMS) technology had been compromised.

"Elbit Systems of Australia strongly refutes the security rumours," he said in a written statement.

"Elbit Systems of Australia utilises secure software development processes in collaboration with the Department of Defence, including the provision of all source code."

 

The USS Wasp off the coast of Queensland during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019. Picture: Peter Wallis
The USS Wasp off the coast of Queensland during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019. Picture: Peter Wallis

On April 29, Australian Defence Magazine reported Elbit Systems Australia had been given notice to cease use of the Army's BMS, effective from mid-May.

"The news was given to the company with no explanation as to the reasoning behind the decision, with Defence confirming that they have no interim solution to replace the capability," the article stated.

Unnamed sources later told the ABC and The Australian the BMS had been compromised after members of the Australian Signals Directorate allegedly found a "backdoor" into the computer system.

A spokeswoman from Elbit Systems referred questions about the notice to cease use to the Australian Department of Defence (DOD).

 

The Australian Defence Force might have to return to using a pen and paper during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 if allegations about the defence battle management systems are confirmed. A US Marine is pictured on the USS Wasp during Talisman Sabre 2019. Picture: Peter Wallis
The Australian Defence Force might have to return to using a pen and paper during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 if allegations about the defence battle management systems are confirmed. A US Marine is pictured on the USS Wasp during Talisman Sabre 2019. Picture: Peter Wallis

A spokesman for the Australian Signals Directorate declined to comment last night and instead also referred questions from the Courier Mail to the DOD.

Questions asked via phone and email about the allegations were not answered by the DOD.

A spokesman for Minister for Defence Industry, Melissa Price, referred questions to Defence Minister Peter Dutton.

A spokeswoman for Mr Dutton said the minister declined to comment.

John Blaxland, Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, said if the allegations were true, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) would be going into Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 (TS21) with pencils and paper after their computerised battle management system had been alleged by some within the department to be unsafe.

"The Australian Signals Directorate did a survey and uncovered a back door in the BMS," he said.

"From what I have read, it was built into the program."

 

 

John Blaxland is a former Defence intelligence officer and professor of security and intelligence at the ANU. Picture: Supplied
John Blaxland is a former Defence intelligence officer and professor of security and intelligence at the ANU. Picture: Supplied

The nation's largest joint combined military training activity with the US, TS21 is scheduled to proceed throughout Queensland and part of NSW despite the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic from June through to August.

Despite repeated requests by the Courier Mail, the ADF are yet to release the final number of people expected to converge on Queensland for the ninth iteration of the biennial mock war-games.

The numbers are usually made public by March, but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is anticipated to be lower than the 34,500 mostly US and Australian military personnel that took part in Talisman Sabre 2019.

Prof Blaxland, 56, said Elbit Systems was an International Defence Electronics Company and makes computerised command and control centres.

"It gives you the ability to portray what you need on a computer screen," he said.

"There has been a report that the system is compromised, that there's a backdoor to the system, so it's not as secure as thought … and they've decided to stop using it."

The DOD has been developing a digital command and control of Army forces through an overlapping series of projects and loans, known collectively as Land 200, according to a 2019 Australian National Audit Office report.

"In 2017, the Chief of Army described Land 200 as the 'highest-priority project in the Army'," it stated.

 

 

 

The Land 200 program is designed to transition the military command from paper to digital in order to provide real-time combat planning tools, communication and situational awareness.

The BMS enables commanders to monitor, direct and review operations with electronic displays of maps and combat data in conjunction with a Tactical Communications Network.

That network comprises a secure, mobile infrastructure (such as radios) to support the data and voice distribution of the BMS and other combat systems used by the Australian Army, the audit office document states.

Prof Blaxland said despite the challenge of not being fully computerised for the first time in years, doing things the "old fashioned way" was a realistic possibility to practice.

"It makes for an interesting scenario," he said.

"In a highly contested real-world scenario something like that could arise.

"The command control communication systems could well be jammed or made to not function properly.

"So in effect that Elbit decision has a degree of realism to the exercise, where they have to work through the system not working properly and yet an adversary being able to use computerised systems."

 

 

Australian Army Private Jacob Hosking, from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, packs his Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missile during a patrol in the field near Stanage Bay during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019. Picture: Sgt. 1st Class Whitney C. Houston/US Army
Australian Army Private Jacob Hosking, from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, packs his Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missile during a patrol in the field near Stanage Bay during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019. Picture: Sgt. 1st Class Whitney C. Houston/US Army

Prof Blaxland said it might be possible for the ADF to borrow some equipment from the US military for TS21, but otherwise it was likely the would have to revert to analogue methods of communication.

"They'll have to use a notepad and pencil, with a lot of runners and dispatch riders on motorbikes," he said.

The Land 200 program was criticised in the 2019 audit report, which stated the project was years behind schedule, as well as noting that Elbit's price was "unaffordable."

It also found prior recommendations had not been implemented.

"Defence established an appropriate review framework, with successive reviews identifying project co-ordination risks from 2013," it states.

"Defence management's failure to implement the recommendations of these reviews until 2017 constitutes a failure of governance that negatively affected the 2015 tender outcome."

Mr McLachlan, a retired army general, said Elbit Systems would continue to work with the ADF.

"Elbit Systems of Australia will continue to work closely with the Australian Defence Force to deliver its network capability requirements, utilising our 250-strong workforce, including 80 military veterans and 100 systems and software engineers," he said.

Originally published as Aussie soldiers allegedly left without $1.6bn battle computer before joint US exercise