Revisiting the Navy’s blueprint for cyber operations

Operation Rolling Tide, which drove Iranian hackers from the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, could have a lasting impact on the Pentagon's approach to cyber.

Image copyright to the Navy: Sailors man the bridge helm station to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) during a replenishment-at-sea.

Sailors man the bridge helm station on the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) during a replenishment-at-sea.

The Navy’s cyber commander recently told Congress how important an operation launched in August 2013 to drive Iranian hackers from a Navy network is to the future of U.S. cyber operations.

The operation "served as a learning opportunity that has both matured the way we operate and defend our networks and simultaneously highlighted gaps both in [our] cybersecurity posture and in our defensive operational capabilities," Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, commander of the Navy's U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, told the House Armed Services Committee’s Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee on March 4.

Tighe was referring to Operation Rolling Tide, the Navy's first cyber defensive operation to be given a name. Iranian hackers had embedded themselves in the unclassified portion of the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, the service’s massive internal computer network, using a "relatively unsophisticated method" of intrusion, the Wall Street Journal reported in September 2013.

The hackers took network diagrams of the Web portals bordering the unclassified and classified sections of NMCI, said Brian Wallace, a researcher at cybersecurity firm Cylance. The firm recovered timestamps from files the hackers uploaded to FTP servers that matched the time of the NMCI break-in, Wallace said in an interview. The firm has attributed the NMCI intrusion and other hacks to an Iranian group.

Although it was a reconnaissance mission rather than a destructive one, Wallace said much of the information taken by the hackers would be "useful in some form of attack."

Nearly two months before the Wall Street Journal report, the Navy and other agencies had begun an unprecedented maneuver to evict the intruders from NMCI. The U.S. Fleet Cyber Command worked with its fellow military service commands, the National Security Agency and the Defense Information Systems Agency to drive out the hackers, Tighe told lawmakers. Multiple Navy components were also involved, including Navy Information Operations Commands (NIOCs) on both coasts.

The Naval Network Warfare Command took the lead in conducting operations to evict the hackers, according to a defense official, who requested anonymity. That work included patching vulnerabilities across NMCI, while cyber teams at the NIOC in Norfolk, Va., were dispatched to "hunt on the networks" for the intruders, the official said. The operation lasted three to four months, but the official declined to comment on why it took that long.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus lauded the operation as "the largest and most sophisticated network maneuver in U.S. Navy history." The operation "revolutionized Navy network defense strategy, improved command and control, developed an expedited process for mitigating network risks, and laid the foundation for defending Navy networks against future cyber threats," Mabus wrote in a commendatory letter.

But the operation also revealed vulnerabilities, Tighe said. "We have learned where [we] had gaps and are instituting some of those defense-in-depth capabilities and standardizing interfaces across systems and networks that talk to each other," she said.

Many of the new cyber defense capabilities in which the Navy is investing a potential $1 billion from fiscal 2014 to 2020 grew from lessons learned from Operation Rolling Tide, she added.

The operation's mastermind was Tighe's predecessor, Adm. Michael Rogers, who is now NSA director and commander of U.S. Cyber Command.

"If you look at what we did for Operation Rolling Tide -- Adm. Rogers was the hero of that," said Matthew Swartz, a member of the Navy’s Senior Executive Service who is leading a servicewide cyber taskforce. "He was the one who realized that we need the ability to fight the network, we need the ability to maneuver the network [if] we are going to fight through a cyber incident," Swartz told reporters in October.

The NMCI intrusion was part of the foundation that led to the task force because it drove home how reliant the Navy is on its internal network for enterprisewide operations, he added.

For Rogers, the operation was about more than simply kicking the hackers off the network. "I wanted to use this as an opportunity to try to drive change," he said at his March 2014 confirmation hearing to lead NSA and Cyber Command. "So I put a much more comprehensive, much longer-term effort in place than if I had just said, 'I want to immediately remove them.'"

Although the hackers apparently did not destroy any of the Navy’s digital infrastructure, Rogers said his "concern from the beginning was, 'Well, what if they had decided that was their intent?'"

The risk of intruders lurking on U.S. networks has stayed with Rogers now that he is in charge of Cyber Command. In his testimony at the March 4 hearing, he reiterated his concern that "potential adversaries might be leaving cyber fingerprints on our critical infrastructure" to underscore the country’s vulnerability to a cyberattack.

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