New Defence chief broadsides IT skills shortage

The most serious wake-up call to date about a looming ICT skills shortage in Australia has been delivered by the head of Australia's largest IT shop.

Australia's next Chief of Defence Force and current Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston has publicly warned that the nation's armed forces may be forced to buy their way out of a serious ICT skills shortage, because the military will soon be in competition with industry for technical talent.

Speaking at the Joint Future Warfighting 2005 conference in Canberra last week, Houston warned delegates the emergence of network-centric warfare necessitated substantial shifts in both military culture and skill sets, with ICT now at the fore.

Network centric warfare (NCW) is an emergent military doctrine where decisions on the actions of armed forces are rapidly facilitated by a series of distributed sensory, intelligence communication, command and control networks.

After querying whether the currently siloed military culture was able to cope with the challenges NCW carried with it, Houston did not mince words about the size of the problem.

"We need people who understand systems; we need people who can integrate systems; we need people who can do systems engineering; we need information warriors and we need to highly educate and train our people," he said.

"I think one of the challenges out there at the moment is the skill shortages that we have in Australia. I believe that it's going to be increasingly difficult to attract the sort of people that we need for our network-enabled future, because everybody's going to need the same sort of people. Industry will need them, we will need them, and they will be a very expensive commodity to employ," Houston said.

Houston also weighed-in heavily to correct perceptions by traditional military commentators that NCW was a pipe dream or a fad based on the idea that warfare and decisions could be largely automated or based on a single network.

Rather, Houston contended, NCW was really all about people skills rather than technology - and that technologists needed to remember this.

"I just wonder whether that human dimension to success is going to be there in the future ... there seems to be a very heavy emphasis on the technology and what the technology is going to do for us," he said.

"At the end of the day, network-centric warfare is all about people-centric warfare ... what it's all about is technology enabling people to do things faster and do things better."

Houston's message was not lost on the chairman of the Australian Defence Information and Electronics Systems Association, Geoff Rhodes.

Both the association and Defence, Rhodes said, had been "looking at these issues for at least the past year", adding that his organization was actively seeking positive solutions to overcome any skills crisis and make sure that Australia retained the military ICT talent it needs.

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