Army soldiers encounter simulated Russian cyberattacks

A recent Army Cyber Quest exercise tested soldiers’ ability to identify and counter cyberattacks from potential adversaries such as Russia and China.

Army soldiers tried to detect and fend off simulated Russian cyberattacks in a recent Cyber Quest exercise aimed at preparing the service for fast-evolving current and future cyber threats.

The month-long Army event included as many as 27 vendors and more than 300 participants gathered to assess the ability of soldiers to detect anomalies and explore networks for evidence of a cyberattack; the scenarios included simulated attacks and various kinds of automated actions to replicate anticipated threats, intrusions and malicious actors.

“We were looking to find operational gaps and pass those along to industry by putting capability into the hands of soldiers to help inform our doctrine and operational concepts,” said Maj. Gen. John Morrison, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence, Fort Gordon.

While many specifics of future high-tech attacks are not expected to be known currently, the emphasis of the training was to prepare for the fast pace of technological change and be ready for adaptations to be made by potential adversaries, such as Russia or China. Participants in the exercise experimented with more than 40 capabilities geared toward responding to attacks from near-peer adversaries, Morrison said.

“We want to defend networks and provide the operational edge with an ability to detect new attacks and remediate those attacks in a rapid fashion. Today, it may take hours. We are trying to get that down into the realm of minutes,” Lt. Col. Stephen Roberts, Cyber Quest 2017 officer in charge.

For the first time for the Army, the training included a specified synthesis between cyber and electronic warfare attacks, as the two are often intertwined, Morrison explained.

The current EW and cyberattack environment was a specific focus of the exercise, but the possibility of Russian hacking is very much on the radar. Russian electronic warfare tactics used during the invasion of Ukraine were, without question, noticed around the world.

These attacks demonstrated an improved ability for EW technologies to locate and jam enemy radio signals with greater effect and at longer distances. Russian sensors were able to detect electronic signatures emanating from radio antennas and dismounted communication technologies used by soldiers in combat. This dynamic led the exercise to address the overlap between EW and cyber defenses, underscoring the need to design EW hardware so that it can quickly embrace new software upgrades and patches needed to respond to new threats.

China is known for its repeated cyberattacks against U.S. networks and databases that house specs for emerging weapons systems. Several years ago, a Congressional report on China’s military modernization made reference to Chinese intrusions and cyber-theft of sensitive U.S. weapons systems and platforms, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Many analysts have made the observation that China’s emerging 5th-generation stealth fighters, such as its J-20 and J-30, seem to exhibit characteristics and contours similar to the F-35.

Despite its best effort to anticipate characteristics expected to be part of future attacks, the Cyber Quest exercise was challenged to pinpoint methods likely to be employed by adversaries in coming years. The emphasis of the simulations was instead focused on adapting to the pace of technological change and fast-changing strategies likely to be leveraged by cyber intruders.

The Army referred to one of these challenges as a difficulty presented by big data; with an increasingly huge volume of data moving through networks, it can be harder to discern anomalies and identify problems amid a high-flow of information, Morrison added.     

For instance, phishing tactics, network IP protocol intrusions and denial of service attacks are likely to morph into new forms and employ unanticipated techniques. As a result, soldiers are training to expect the unexpected and envision more disguised attacks requiring a wider range of methods and technologies needed to detect anomalies.

“One of the changes in the training relates to when we look at malware. We are no longer looking at general rule-based analysis but on a pattern of life to trigger awareness of a problem,” said Col. Steven Rehn, TRADOC Capabilities Manager-Cyber.

While some of the tactics employed by soldiers in the exercise were not available for discussion, Morrison did emphasize that the effort included a directed strategy to leverage various technical innovations introduced by industry partners.

“Some of the vendors were looking to incorporate new capabilities, so we knew that we would, of course, see some failures,” Roberts said. “Having capabilities in the hands of soldiers allows industry developers to immediate receive soldier feedback.”

Given the pace of technical change, one solution being pursued by Army cyber experts is to pursue rapid prototyping to shorten, condense or speed up the technical development process, and utilize open architecture to allow new technology to quickly integrate with existing systems.

“Rapid prototyping is the only way we will stay at pace in this critical domain,” he said.

Army cyber experts expect to use more automation as well as AI in an offensive and defensive capacity. Defensively, cyber soldiers will seek to identify enemy automation aimed at confusing or penetrating networks.

Offensively and defensively, some services such as the Air Force are already working on computer algorithms engineered to replicate human behavior in cyberspace as a way to deceive and therefore track attackers. Computer generated automation can closely replicate cyber activities conducted by a human being, therefore enabling a cyber defender to lure and then track the activities of attackers.

Cyber Quest took place within a broader context of the ongoing U.S. military transition to a wider range of interconnected networks. The Pentagon’s current Joint Information Environment (JIE) aims to facilitate greater IT interoperability between service networks using common IP protocol standards; this is designed to both increase mission-related data-sharing while also implementing increased network protections.

U.S. military IT developers, including Army participants in the Cyber Quest exercise, recognize that movements toward JIE and the Joint Regional Security Stacks (JRSS) present a double-edged dynamic.

On the one hand, greater interoperability greatly expands cross-domain U.S. military mission capabilities, consolidates data centers and reduces a hardware footprint, but increased connectivity could also increase vulnerability.

For this reason, U.S. military cyber modernization is squarely oriented toward adding needed protections to individual service networks, while at the same time seeking to harvest the benefits of greater interoperability.

“We can't afford a bunch of stove-piped systems. We want to integrate data into an interoperable, operational and technical infrastructure - getting these capabilities into the hands of those who would be employed,” Morrison said.

Findings from the simulated cyber war exercises will soon inform a special report for U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

“We are planning the next Cyber Quest for 2018,” Roberts added.

 

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