How ‘hunt forward’ teams can help defend networks

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The Department of Defense wants to spend $11.6 million in fiscal year 2021 to buy systems that would help cyber operators perform “hunt forward” missions, where teams deploy to other countries to stop malicious cyber activity.

The Pentagon did not appear to set aside procurement money for the program in fiscal year 2020.

The operations provide U.S. cyber teams insight into tactics used by adversaries that could be turned against U.S. networks or during elections in the future.

The funds are part of the Air Force’s procurement budget for fiscal year 2021 through the “C3/Countermeasures” program. The Air Force serves as U.S. Cyber Command’s executive agent in procuring equipment.

Defense officials view these hunt forward operations as a critical component to protecting the homeland and as part of a new strategy of “persistent engagement,” which is how Cyber Command executes a philosophy of “defend forward” by challenging adversary activities wherever they operate.

“In a hunt forward operation, we are able to work with partner nations and receive an invitation to execute operations in their country,” Brig. Gen. William Hartman, commander of the Cyber National Mission Force and Cyber Command’s election security lead, said at an event in January. “These are generally countries that are in the near abroad of adversaries that we’re potentially concerned about.”

For the second consecutive year, Cyber Command announced in October that it was deploying teams to Montenegro for hunt forward operations. The funds will go toward the hardware and software needed to equip the Cyber National Mission Force teams deploying to other nations.

Air Force research and development funds also help support these missions. Within the cyber operations technology development program, the military plans to spend $22.8 million on joint sensors. Budget documents note that hunt forward operations provided cyber teams access to networks that traditionally within the spheres of influence around Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. U.S. military teams could then “enable defense and impose costs.”

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