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An actual cyber attack shouldn't be the first time your team responds to a cybersecurity incident. Just like a firefighter wouldn't run into a burning building without prior training and experience, cybersecurity professionals need preparation and practice before responding to real-world threats. That’s where red team exercises shine. 

Red team exercises are simulated attacks designed to challenge and test an organization's defenses, incident response capabilities, preparedness, and overall resilience. The results yielded can help organizations identify and fix vulnerabilities in their security systems, enabling better prevention, detection, and response to cyberattacks.

What is a Red Team Exercise?

A red team exercise is a controlled, simulated attack on an organization's systems, networks, or physical infrastructure. It involves a group of skilled professionals, known as the red team, who emulate the tactics and techniques employed by bad actors. The blue team, on the other hand, attempts to defend against the red team's attacks.

Red team vs. blue team exercises provide organizations with valuable insights that can help identify vulnerabilities in an organization's security systems and procedures. Security teams can then plug the holes in their cyber defenses to proactively reduce the risk of a security breach. 

A red team exercise examines vulnerabilities at every level of the company, from leaving a physical door unlocked to identifying zero-day vulnerabilities. Areas red teams might test during an exercise might include: 

Physical Penetration Testing

The red team tests the effectiveness of physical security measures like access controls, surveillance systems, and security personnel in an attempt to gain access to an organization's premises. 

Network Penetration Testing

Red team members simulate attacks like network reconnaissance and exploitation techniques to access the organization's network infrastructure, including firewalls, routers, and web applications. 

Application Penetration Testing

Application penetration testing involves identifying security flaws in web and mobile software applications (like missing authorization policies) with the aim of assessing their resilience against attacks.

Social Engineering

Social engineering attacks such as phishing use psychological tactics to trick employees into revealing sensitive information or allowing unauthorized access to systems. This style of attack will test employees on their security awareness training and identify personnel gaps. 

Intercepting Communication

Some red teams try to gain access to the organization's communication channels, such as email or voice communication, in an attempt to intercept and analyze transmitted data.

How to Plan a Red Team Exercise

Planning a red team exercise can be a complex process. To ensure it’s impactful, there are a few key steps organizations should follow. 

First, set clear objectives. What do you hope to achieve by conducting the exercise? Once you know your primary objective you can define the exercise’s scope and limitations.

Part of setting the scope includes identifying the critical assets, infrastructure components, or security controls that should be tested. The red team should identify specific items to target. It’s important that the blue team does not know the red team’s target or attack method as that could bias the results. 

Finally, consider the impact of red teaming exercises on operational technology systems. Make sure that your critical infrastructure isn’t affected in a way that would disrupt other employees' work or expose you to real threats. Cyber ranges, like SimSpace’s Cyber Force Platform, allow you to simulate any IT environment, so you can leave critical assets completely intact when hosting teaming exercises.

What are the Benefits of a Red Team Exercise?

Red team exercises offer numerous advantages for organizations committed to enhancing their cybersecurity posture. Some of the key benefits include:

1. Enhanced Cyber Readiness

Red team exercises help improve an organization’s state of cyber readiness — a position in which organizations are able to identify, respond to, and recover from cyber attacks in a swift and effective manner. Teaming exercises prepare organizations to handle threats in real time, ensuring they are prepared in the event of an actual attack.

Identification of Vulnerabilities and Weaknesses

By simulating realistic attack scenarios, a red team exercise exposes weaknesses in systems, networks, applications, and human interactions, allowing organizations to fix these vulnerabilities before they’re exploited by bad actors.

3. Evaluation of Security Controls and Defenses

Red team exercises help organizations assess the effectiveness of their existing security controls and defenses. This helps organizations make informed decisions on how to strengthen their infrastructure.

4. Tested Incident Response Capabilities

Teaming exercises allow organizations to test their incident response plans and capabilities before an attack occurs, enabling them to practice and refine their processes.

5. Improved Risk Management Strategies

Through these exercises, organizations quickly gain insights into potential risks, helping form a truly continuous risk management plan with stronger strategies in place. 

6. Formation of a Proactive Security Culture

Routine teaming exercises demonstrate an organizational commitment to cybersecurity. This example encourages employees to remain vigilant and act proactively in the face of threats.

6 Red Team Exercise Best Practices

To maximize the effectiveness of your next red team exercise, be sure to consider the following best practices:

1. Establish Clear Objectives and Scope

Clearly define the goals and limitations to ensure participants focus on key areas of concern. Without a clear objective, team members may focus on the gamified elements of the exercise.

2. Conduct Thorough Reconnaissance and Intelligence Gathering

Gather as much information as possible about your systems, networks, personnel, and potential attack vectors. This allows you to simulate real-world attack scenarios as accurately as possible.

3. Simulate Realistic Attack Scenarios

Red team exercises should mirror the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) employed by actual threat actors. To this end, a cyber range can provide different types of live fire exercises and pre-defined scenarios used by global intelligence communities, law enforcement agencies, and Fortune 2000 companies to help your team prepare for the latest high-level threats. 

4. Document and Report Findings

Teaming exercises are only as valuable as the work done afterward. Comprehensive documentation and reporting of findings, including identified vulnerabilities, recommended remediation steps, and lessons learned, are essential for organizational learning and future improvements.

5. Encourage Open Communication and Collaboration

A culture of open communication and collaboration between the red team, blue team, and other organizational stakeholders will help ensure that knowledge is shared effectively and that improvements are made. 

6. Implement Lessons Learned and Continuous Improvement

Actively incorporating the lessons learned from red teaming exercises into your security practices is crucial; otherwise, you'll miss out on valuable opportunities for improvement. 

Red Team Exercise Goals

Red team exercises are proven to improve several key cybersecurity-related outcomes including, but not limited to:

Eradication Success Rate

Teaming exercises aim to improve a security team's effectiveness in identifying and eliminating threats or malicious activities from an organization's systems, networks, or infrastructure. By simulating realistic attack scenarios, red team exercises help organizations refine their incident response capabilities, identify gaps in eradication procedures, and enhance their ability to swiftly neutralize threats.

Mean Time to Detection

One of the main objectives of red team exercises is to reduce the average time it takes your cybersecurity team to detect a security breach. By simulating real-world attack techniques using the latest tactics, techniques and procedures, red team exercises challenge an organization's detection mechanisms, enabling them to identify and respond to threats more efficiently. 

Analysis of Tools and Coverage Gaps

Red team exercises play a crucial role in improving an organization's level of protection against cyberattacks by evaluating the effectiveness of their cybersecurity tools and identifying coverage gaps. By simulating sophisticated attack techniques, organizations can assess the capabilities of their existing security tools and identify areas for improvement.

Mean Time to Remediation

Teaming exercises also aim to improve the speed at which identified vulnerabilities and weaknesses are addressed and remediated. By actively testing an organization's security controls, processes, and procedures, red team exercises expose areas requiring immediate attention, enabling organizations to prioritize remediation efforts.

Detection and Protection Maturity Heat Map

Red team exercises contribute to the gradual improvement of an organization's detection and protection maturity map. By consistently challenging an organization's security defenses, these exercises help identify strengths and weaknesses across different assets, systems, and processes to enhance their overall cybersecurity maturity.

Teaming Exercises Are Only One Piece of the Puzzle

Red team exercises provide valuable insights that can reduce the likelihood of a successful cyber attack. By incorporating red team exercises into your security strategy, your organization becomes more resilient to data breaches, financial losses, reputational damage, and regulatory non-compliance.

While internal red team exercises play a crucial role in assessing and fortifying your security defenses, they’re just one component of a comprehensive approach. To truly achieve cyber readiness, your cybersecurity team should engage with third-party experts who can offer fresh perspectives on the latest threats and security strategies.

SimSpace's Cyber Force Platform offers customizable live fire exercises that put your team to the ultimate test in a no-risk environment. By leveraging our military-grade cyber range and professional expertise, you can help your organization bolster its security stack, reduce response times, and proactively identify breach points.

Don't go it alone – request a free demo today to see how your organization can achieve true cyber readiness.

Blog bySimSpace
SimSpace is the leading innovative cyber security platform for enabling risk reduction through operational quantification, testing and training. No other organization has SimSpace’s depth of experience in creating high fidelity cyber ranges with unique user and adversary emulation techniques.