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Applying Military Doctrine to Cyberspace: Areas of Operation, Influence and Interest

The Internet is a virtual environment within the physical properties of the infrastructure that enables its existence. It is tied to geography and there are physical linkages to entities such as IP addresses or domain names. However, the logical topology of the networks that own the information space can be quite different.

Cyber Security in Military TermsThe operational area, in military terms, is the area in which a military unit has full responsibility to conduct its action and accomplish assigned missions or tasks. In essence, it is the terrain that the unit owns controls or seeks to control. According to Army Field Manual 3-90, “control” is defined as “ a tactical mission task that requires the commander to maintain physical influence over a specified area to prevent its use by an enemy or to create conditions necessary for successful friendly operations.” In the world of cyber-security, this is the area inside the firewall, proxy or quite simply, inside the IP or domain space an entity owns. This is fairly easy to define, but has proved difficult to defend. Why? Because security today is designed to secure (“a tactical mission task that involves preventing a unit, facility, or geographical location from being damaged or destroyed as a result of enemy action”) the entire “area of operations” from everything bad.

In military tactics, defending everything from everyone is a recipe for disaster. There is a famous book that all young officers read when I was in the Army called “The Defense of Duffer’s Drift.” The book talks about how a young British Lieutenant during the Boar Wars in South Africa had recurring dreams about the defense of a “drift” or ford in a river. In the dreams he kept losing because he didn’t follow basic military tenets. He lacked security, reconnaissance, understanding the terrain and likely enemy avenues of approach. We face the same dilemma in cybersecurity today. We have to wait until the enemy is at the gates before we can react. We normally do not understand his intent, until we can conduct a forensic investigation of what he did in our area of operations and what he escaped with. In essence, the threat actors conduct daily military raids behind our lines and get away before we know what happened. Why?

If we look at military doctrine, there are a couple of things we can learn. In this column I am going to discuss why we need to understand cyber areas of operations, influence and interest. In future discussions, I intend to discuss reconnaissance and security zones versus today’s DMZ;/ intelligence preparation of the battlefield; supporting collection and targeting plans and other concepts as they apply to cyber space.

In defense, it is important to understand all aspects of the area of operations to include positioning of friendly forces, key terrain to defend, and engagement areas where the enemy will be observed as fires are brought upon them. It can be contiguous or not, but it is definable. However, a successful unit cannot rely on the enemy to agree to suddenly appear where it wants the enemy to materialize and expect the results it wants. The successful unit must start its plan with an understanding of its areas of interest and influence. 

By definition, in Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, “an area of influence is a geographic area in which a commander can directly influence operations by maneuver or fires capabilities normally under the commander’s command or control. The area of influence normally surrounds and includes the assigned operational area.”

How does that equate in cyber space? In the cybersecurity world, how much does an network entity know about its peers? Most do not have the readily available means to understand what is happening within their area of influence. The area of influence consists of a network’s upstream or downstream peers. It also includes the peer networks’ domain servers or routers because of the data flow they control and information they possess. If compromised or misconfigured, those routers or servers can have a negative impact on their neighbors. Visibility of the area of influence can identify likely avenues of enemy approach and likely enemy tactics, techniques or procedures (TTPs) such as “man-in-the-middle” or redirection exploits. Using indicators of these TTPs focus limited resources to recognize threat activity beyond their borders that will affect their network operations and employ countermeasures such as DNS Remote Policy Zone to mitigate risk.

Beyond the area of influence lies the area of interest. JP 3-0 defines an area of interest as “an area beyond the area of influence that contains forces and/or other factors that could jeopardize friendly mission accomplishment. In combat operations, the AOI normally extends into enemy territory to the objectives of current or planned friendly operations if those objectives are not currently located within the assigned operational area.” In other words, this is more like the enemy staging areas where he is organizing for combat. In these areas, intelligence would be focused on types of units, likely weapons, composition, disposition and strength. In today’s cyber terminology, that is cyber threat infrastructure such as botnets, crime ware and actor/groups/nation states. The knowledge of what these groups target is essential to understand where they might strike, what methods or tools they will use, and building the infrastructure to defend against the threat.

Cyber defenders today must employ this mindset and employ tools that provide the understanding of their areas of operation, influence, and interest. Without this ability to identify threats and understand their surroundings, entities will not act successfully to defend infrastructures or critical information. Unlike The Defense of Duffer’s Drift, this isn’t a dream, and you only get one chance to get it right.

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Matthew Stern
 is Senior Vice President, Strategy & Analysis
 at Lookingglass. Prior to joining Lookingglass, Stern served three years with General Dynamics Advanced Information System as Program Director for US-CERT. Previously, he served as Director of Cyber Accounts for General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems. He spent 22 years in the U.S. Army culminating with command of 2d Battalion, 1st Information Operations Command, overseeing the Army Computer Emergency Response Team (ACERT) and Regional Computer Emergency Response Teams (RCERTs). He holds a master’s degree in Information Systems and Computer Resource Management from Webster University and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Northern Illinois University.