Author: Julian Lark, Tom Freebairn, Aja Melville
May 18 2023
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Cyber Teams Deploy Abroad To Bolster U.S. Cyber Defenses
A team from U.S. Cyber Command’s (CYBERCOM’s) Cyber National Mission Task Force (CNMF) recently completed a hunt forward operation in Latvia.
Hunt forward operations are part of CYBERCOM’s 2018 Defend Forward strategy, which calls for the Dept. of Defense to “disrupt malicious cyber activity at its source, including activity that falls below the level of armed conflict.” In this case, the team operated on a network chosen by Latvia to detect, monitor and analyze tactics, techniques and procedures of malicious cyber actors.
During the three-month mission, the CNMF team worked with Canadian personnel and Latvia’s CERT.LV Security Incident Response Institution to support defensive cyber operations in the Baltic state.
This was the first time that the U.S. and Canada have completed a hunt forward operation together and the CNMF’s second deployment to Latvia. The Canadian cyber task force has a longstanding relationship with Latvian cybersecurity experts. Canada has led NATO’s enhanced forward presence (EFP) battle group in Latvia since 2017.
During the U.S. deployment, the American and Canadian teams worked together on different networks, sharing information and threat hunt indicators with each other and Latvian officials.
To date, CNMF has deployed 47 times to 22 countries, conducting hunt operations on over 70 different networks.
The latest U.S. cyber operation in Latvia comes two months after it announced the completion of its first hunt forward operation in Albania, which was a response to significant attacks by Iranian hackers July and September 2022. As in Latvia, the CNMF team worked closely with Albanian officials.
CNMF’s hunt forward operations have contributed to the implementation and refinement of the Defend Forward strategy and increased the resilience of U.S. allies’ and partners’ networks.
When it was unveiled, the Defend Forward strategy was touted as a change in posture from the historically defensive, reactive and secretive attitude of U.S. cybersecurity agencies to a proactive vision for disrupting malign actors. However, some have criticized the ambiguously defined policy, questioning the effectiveness of offensive cyber activities.
Meanwhile, the Defend Forward strategy has revealed its primary quality as a form of resilience-building. In addition to dislodging hostile actors from friendly networks and building out the resilience of such networks, hunt forward operations function as intelligence-sharing and relationship-building opportunities for the U.S. and its allies and partners. For CYBERCOM, this gives it knowledge of adversary tactics, which are often tested outside the U.S. for refinement before employment against American targets. While cyber defense remains a primarily reactive game, hunt forward operations help build resilience among allies and partners and provide valuable intelligence on adversary tactics prior to their use against the U.S.
Romanian Air Force Drops Aging Soviet Jets
The war in Ukraine has shaken up European defense, accelerating efforts to modernize armed forces across the continent. Romania, the NATO member state with the longest border with Ukraine, has viewed Russia’s aggression with concern, taking steps to speed up its military modernization. A major milestone was reached this week, with the retirement of its aging fleet of Soviet fighter jets.
Historically comprising Soviet and Russian materiel, the Romanian air force on Monday retired the last of its upgraded MiG-21 LanceR fighter jets after more than 60 years of service. The retirement formally concluded the era of Soviet fighters in Romanian service, with the U.S.-made F-16 now the only combat jet in service. Integration of 17 F-16 fighters procured from Portugal began in 2016. Romania is expanding its fighter fleet under a US$387 million agreement with the Norwegian government that was finalized on Nov. 4, 2022. The deal covers 32 second-hand F-16s, which are to be delivered by 2024.
In April 2023, the Romanian government announced its intention to become the third former-Soviet bloc NATO member to acquire fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II jets. While hurdles exist to this procurement, the move suggests that Romania has prioritized the modernization of its air capabilities over the last year.
Bucharest’s modernization drive appears to be a win for U.S. manufacturers, who will support the F-16s and, potentially, F-35s in the future. The used F-16s represent a qualitative improvement over the long-problematic MiG-21 (30 aircraft were lost in accidents from 1991 to 2022) and will enhance the defense of NATO’s Black Sea front.
NATO has spent much of the last two decades focused on its northern front in the Baltic states and Poland. Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance launched air-policing missions in Bulgaria and Romania to bolster their air capabilities. In recent years, the two countries have moved to update their air forces with new fighters, Bucharest opting for used F-16s from Portugal and Norway, while Sofia has elected to buy new-built F-16s from Lockheed Martin.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has spurred a new wave of military spending in Europe. Front-line states are among those seeking to accelerate the modernization of their armed forces. For Romania, the retirement of its aging MiG-21s represents another step toward a modern air capability, which will enhance its ability to contribute to NATO missions and regional security.
SOCOM Steps Up Drive For Loitering Capabilities
The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has made loitering technologies a priority in its efforts to support counter-violent extremist organization (C-VEO) operations and strategic competition.
During SOF week in Tampa, Fla., last week, Col. Anh Ha, the program executive officer Special Operations Forces (SOF) Warrior emphasized “loitering capability” over “loitering munition” in an interview with Jane’s, noting that there were numerous capabilities that could be integrated with uncrewed aircraft beyond weapons. For example, loitering platforms could in the future be equipped with electronic warfare payloads, the colonel said.
USSOCOM’s Program Executive Office SOF Warrior is actively supporting various programs focused on deploying loitering capabilities, including the Ground Organic Precision Strike System (GOPSS) that is intended to offer three levels of capability.
Echelon 1 consists of tube-launched capabilities, including AeroVironment’s Switchblade 300 and UVision’s Hero-30FR.
Echelon 0, which is expected to be procured starting in 2024, aims to introduce vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) solutions.
The program office is also looking to add automated target recognition and extended ranges to its loitering munitions, the publication said.
AeroVironment took advantage of SOF Week to show off its Switchblade 300 Block 20 system, first unveiled on March 28, which is the successor to the Switchblade 300. The new system, already ordered by the U.S. Army, features enhanced capabilities, including high-resolution electro-optical/infrared cameras; improved digital data link; and endurance extended from 15 minutes to 20 minutes.
The Pentagon is also exploring a new hand-launched and recoverable loitering munitions. On Jan. 19, the department awarded Israel Aerospace Industries a multimillion dollar deal for its Point Blank (designated ROC-X by the Defense Dept.) loitering aircraft. IAI describes it as an electro-optically guided missile with VTOL capability that can be carried in a soldier’s backpack.
Loitering capabilities offer significant benefits for special operations. The relatively small air vehicles provide enhanced situational awareness, monitoring targets and gathering intelligence in real time, enabling precise target identification and reducing the risk of collateral damage. New missions are also envisioned, with electronic warfare payloads offering the ability to disrupt enemy communications and sensors. Furthermore, their low cost means that they are expendable.
The U.S. is not alone in pursuing loitering capabilities. China, Israel, Turkey and Russia have been developing their own capabilities, while countries such as Azerbaijan, Germany, India and South Korea have sought to acquire the technology. Given their heavy use in Ukraine, loitering capabilities are likely to continue to play an important role in future conflicts.
“'Shared threats, shared understanding:'” U.S., Canada And Latvia Conclude Defensive Hunt Operations,” U.S. Cyber Command, May 10, 2023.
“Romania Retires Soviet-Heritage Fighter Jet Fleet,” Agence France-Presse, May 15, 2023.
"USSOCOM Eyes Loitering Systems For EW, Other Functions," Andrew White, Jane's, May 15, 2023.
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