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NEWS | Aug. 5, 2021

NSWCDD-Based Capabilities Providing Leading Edge in Combat System Cybersecurity

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

As a research and development institution, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) is known for developing new and sustaining existing naval system capabilities. But what is being done to ensure that these systems and those currently deployed are secure from cyber threats?

From high-level assessments of system cybersecurity to focused adversarial attack simulations, engineers at NSWCDD are ensuring that the systems of today’s Navy – and those of the next Navy – are safe from the threat of cyber-attack.

Headquartered at NSWCDD’s newly constructed Cyber Warfare Engineering Lab are two of the leading capabilities in ensuring the warfighter’s system security – NAVSEA Red Team and USS Secure.  

“When warfighters have to engage their weapon system, they like it to work,” said Deputy Director of NAVSEA Red Team John Jims. “We try to make sure that in a cyber-contested environment any possible actions the adversary could take to prevent the system from shooting or defending the Sailors will not impede operations.”

The NAVSEA Red Team is certified by the National Security Agency and accredited by U.S. Cyber Command as a Department of Defense Cyber Red Team. A DoD Cyber Red Team is an independent, multi-disciplinary group of DoD personnel authorized to emulate a potential adversary’s attack capabilities against a targeted mission or system to highlight vulnerabilities to improve cybersecurity. “We emulate real-world cyber threat actors,” said Director of the NAVSEA Red Team Derek Howard.

During a traditional red teaming event, few system operators are aware of the test ahead of time to best simulate the real conditions of an adversarial attack. Following the event, NAVSEA Red Team generates a report of vulnerabilities found and measures that can mitigate risk.

But these surprise readiness assessments are not the only tests that NAVSEA Red Team conducts. The Red Team may work with systems that are still in development to perform exhaustive penetration tests and what they call cyber table tops – high-level, low-fidelity system walkthroughs to point out big picture security issues.

Where a red teaming event is unannounced and from the adversarial perspective, a penetration test is completed in tandem with the system operators to meticulously scour all aspects of the system for potential weaknesses.

Another leading capability out of NSWCDD used to evaluate system cyber resiliency is USS Secure.

USS Secure is a capability that links systems together from existing test sites to perfectly replicate the environment of naval assets like ships or submarines. The ability to test systems precisely as they are while deployed allows Red Team operators and cyber experts to better identify cyber issues and conduct the highest fidelity cyber risk assessments.

USS Secure works closely with their NSWCDD counterpart, the NAVSEA Red Team. However, the fleet-focused capability is beginning to widen its scope. According to Jay Blalock, Disrupted Cyber Test lead and USS Secure expert, USS Secure is working toward integration with Coast Guard, Army, Air Force and allied forces.

Looking toward the future of cyber capability, NSWCDD is spearheading an effort to expand the implementation of capabilities like NAVSEA Red Team and USS Secure to the system engineering development process. With this more holistic approach, engineers would build cybersecurity into the overall system engineering process the same way other processes are (e.g. safety). The goal is to find solutions to potential risks before a system ever leaves the developmental stage.

“Identifying the flaws from a cyber aspect as early as possible before the enemy has the ability to interrupt the Navy’s mission and cause harm to the warfighter is key,” said Blalock. “At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing Sailors, Marines and Airmen home safe.”