The Defense Department has updated its overall cyber strategy, incorporating lessons learned in the Ukraine conflict to refine the “hunt forward” initiatives Cyber Command deploys around the world.
The DOD said on May 25 it had sent Congress its 2023 DOD Cyber Strategy, the blueprint for its cyber operations which aim to “protect the American people and advance the defense priorities of the United States.”
While the strategy is classified, the DOD published a two-page fact sheet (PDF) summarizing key elements and said it would release an unclassified version of the document over the summer.
The 2023 strategy builds on and replaces the previous version, published by the Pentagon in 2018. It is the military-focused complement to the 2023 National Cybersecurity Strategy, released in March, and sits under the 2022 National Security Strategy and the 2022 National Defense Strategy.
In its fact sheet, the Pentagon said the updated cyber strategy was “grounded in real-world experience” including lessons learned since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in early 2022.
“Since 2018, the Department has conducted a number of significant cyberspace operations through its policy of defending forward, actively disrupting malicious cyber activity before it can affect the U.S. Homeland. This strategy is further informed by Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which has demonstrated how cyber capabilities may be used in large-scale conventional conflict.”
The fact sheet includes a succinct summary of the global threat landscape. The Pentagon said it faced “an increasingly contested cyberspace” where its “pacing challenge” came from the People’s Republic of China. “The PRC has made significant investments in military cyber capabilities and empowered a number of proxy organizations to pursue malicious cyber activities against the United States.”
Russian cyber activity posed “an acute threat,” it said, “evidenced by its malign influence efforts against the United States and repeated cyberattacks against Ukrainian civilian critical infrastructure”.
It labeled North Korea, Iran, and extremist organizations as “persistent” threats and said dealing with transnational criminal organizations presented unique challenges “due to their technical aptitude and often close alignment with the foreign policy objectives of their host governments”.
To address this multifaceted threat landscape, the cyber strategy outlined a four-pronged approach: defend the nation, prepare to fight and win wars, protect the cyber domain with allies and partners, and build enduring advantages in cyberspace.
The DOD said its strategy for defending the nation would continue to include taking a “defend forward” approach focused on disrupting threat groups and the ecosystems that supported them. It said it would also work with partner agencies to ensure the cyber resilience of U.S. critical infrastructure and to counter threats to military readiness.
Under its objective to “protect the cyber domain with allies and partners,” the Pentagon said it would continue to conduct hunt forward operations as part of its strategy of assisting U.S. allies and partners in building their cyber capacity and capability.
The hunt forward initiative involves sending specialists overseas to work alongside other nations’ military and security agencies on hardening their local networks against cyber threats.
By the end of 2022, Cyber Command had conducted hunt forward missions in at least 35 countries, including Ukraine, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Defense officials have previously said that as well as benefiting the partner states they are invited to assist, the missions also advantaged the U.S. by bolstering Cyber Command’s knowledge of the latest threats, providing intelligence that could assist in hardening domestic systems against attacks.
Implementing the revised DOD cyber strategy will be a key responsibility for the next commander of Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency. Gen. Paul Nakasone, who currently holds the joint roles, is planning to step down later this year.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, who currently holds the second topmost position at Cyber Command, has been nominated by President Joe Biden to succeed Nakasone.