Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Protection and management of sensitive submarine information

By David Nicholls
Executive Director, Submarine Institute of Australia

Australian submarine programs have always been managed under stringent security requirements which protect all information and technical data; the future submarine program is no different.

There are many more aspects of military information that are sensitive than are not. There is a broad spectrum of sensitivities which must be protected; few have greater importance than those associated with submarines. This is because submarines are critical strategic platforms in the execution of national security. If any of their capabilities are compromised, their effectiveness is diminished. Therefore, the protection of sensitive information by those who design, build and operate submarines is of paramount importance. National patriotism is a strong factor and, when combined with the professional motivation of serving in an elite and highly-effective submarine force, it produces an almost religious zeal in protecting knowledge of the capability from those whose motivations are not consistent with Australia’s national interests. It also explains why the Australian Government requires people involved in submarine technology and operations to have a very high level of security clearance. The awarding of these clearances involves careful examination of the subjects’ susceptibility to weaknesses of human character together with questionable affiliations (those who don’t pass this scrutiny are excluded).

There have, however, been occasions when financial gain, political disaffection or blackmail may have resulted in the compromise of submarine information security. The penalties for anyone convicted of compromise are severe and should serve as a significant deterrent. There is a possibility that the recent leak of sensitive information about new Indian Scorpene submarines came as a result of these motives. The invariable reaction is a deep investigation to identify if laws have been broken and if they have, recommendations about prosecution. Given the Australian Government’s strong, ongoing commitment to the management of sensitive defence information, this is the likely course of action taken by the Australian Government (and French Government), as well as defence industry stakeholders directly involved with the Scorpene leak.

Threats from cyber-attacks are increasing, exploiting both technology and procedure weaknesses. Hi-tech solutions, such as encryption, and low-tech precautions, such as physically transporting information instead of communication using the internet, will continue to be pursued to keep Australian information safe. Despite this, those involved in submarine security will never be complacent.

Australian security protocols have been applied successfully for decades during the procurement, build and operational profile of the Oberon and Collins classes submarines. The SIA has confidence that the recently published security lapse will serve to ensure the security protocols around the future submarines are just as tight, if not tighter.