A U.S. Air Force cyber transport systems technician at work Aug. 8, 2013, at Joint Base Charleston, S.C.

A U.S. Air Force cyber transport systems technician at work Aug. 8, 2013, at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman George Goslin

Lawmakers Want the Pentagon's Red Team Hackers to Be More Like China and Iran

It's all part of a push to make training more realistic and much more frequent, year by year.

Legislators want mandatory, specialized training for U.S. cybersecurity troops who play the role of the enemy in war games.

The requirement, rolled into a defense authorization bill, marks a bid to continuously test U.S. cyber forces, while minimizing the chances of confusing real threats with fictional ones. 

Each geographic combatant command around the world would have to pen agreements with Defense Secretary Ash Carter to use these "cyber opposition forces," under the proposal.

A House Armed Services Committee official, speaking on background, described the groups to Nextgov as a new type of red team, "like the aggressor squadrons in the Air Force that support Red Flag," an annual exercise for fighter pilots held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

The committee's Emerging Threats and Capabilities panel voted Thursday to create a joint certification and training program for the cyber opposition forces by March 31, 2017. The agreements to deploy friendly hackers against combatant command cyber warriors must be signed by Sept. 30 of that year. 

The cyber red teams would attack during practice scenarios throughout the year, as well as at the annual Cyber Flag competition, also held at Nellis Air Force Base.

See also: Lawmakers Demand US Military Carry Out Pretend Cyber War Against China, Russia
Related: Why the Military Can’t Go After Iran for Hacking Your Dam
Read more: 5 Chinese Cyber Attacks That Might Be Even Worse Than the OPM Hack

As cyber forces move toward this "persistent training environment,” real risks to networks could surface, lawmakers contend.

Let's say during a drill, a U.S. service member spots a new breed of virus on a system. Is this malicious code the work of an opposition team or a foreign adversary? 

"The committee recognizes that special arrangements will be needed to deconflict training from real-world activities that may happen on mission networks," the lawmakers said in the House version of the Defense Authorization Act, an annual spending package that sets Pentagon policy. 

Some combatant commands already have subjected U.S. forces to periodic cyberattacks over time and claim positive results.

Defense officials should consider deconfliction, or the process of differentiating between simulated and actual hacks, when crafting agreements "to integrate cyber opposition force training into continuous and ongoing training activities,” the lawmakers said.

The greatest adversaries U.S. troops face in cyberspace remain China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, Adm. Mike Rogers, head of Cyber Command, told the committee during a March 16 hearing.

A key part of training the future 6,200-person CYBERCOM force "will be through the use of cyber opposition forces that can realistically emulate the types of threat actors these teams will likely face," lawmakers said in their proposal. 

A Defense spokeswoman deferred to the House committee for comment. 

Some combatant commands already have subjected U.S. forces to periodic cyberattacks over time with positive results, Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon Operational Test & Evaluation, has said.

In fiscal 2015, U.S. Pacific Command approved year-round activities for a cyber opposition force—to more realistically portray adversaries and make the most out of scarce red-teamers.

The opposition force “has already helped USPACOM find and remediate mission-critical vulnerabilities that might have otherwise gone undetected," Gilmore said in an annual report released in February. 

Gilmore recommended each combatant command allow cyber opposition forces to produce life-like cyber strikes during all major exercises.

Civilian departments also are dispatching hackers to test the skills of their dot-gov network protectors.

Homeland Security Department officials said in a Feb. 10 blog post the number of civilian cyber defense teams that conduct “red team” penetration testing to find security holes and hunt for intruders, among other things, will increase from 10 to 48.