Cover: Cyber Mission Thread Analysis

Cyber Mission Thread Analysis

A Prototype Framework for Assessing Impact to Missions from Cyber Attacks to Weapon Systems

Published Mar 10, 2022

by Don Snyder, Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, Dahlia Anne Goldfeld, Bernard Fox, Myron Hura, Mahyar A. Amouzegar, Lauren Kendrick


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Research Questions

  1. What are the challenges to assessing mission impact or cybersecurity risk across the entire Air Force?
  2. How is the risk from cyber attacks different from other risks to missions?
  3. From the perspective of mission impact, what are the aspects of the cyber problem that present unique challenges that must be addressed?

The most important consideration when deciding whether to mitigate or accept a risk from a cyber attack to a weapon system is how it affects operational missions — otherwise known as mission impact. It is, however, impractical to do a comprehensive assessment of every system and all missions across the entire Air Force given that each system is complex, with an enormous number of potential vulnerabilities to examine and each vulnerability having its own complicated threat environment.

Enter the cyber mission thread analysis framework. To analyze mission impact, the authors present this new methodology that aims to achieve several goals at once: to be comprehensive enough to be executed at the scale of each of the missions in the U.S. Air Force yet informative enough to guide decisions to accept or to mitigate specific risks. In addition, the method is simple enough to perform in no more than a few months and can be updated as needed.

The framework follows a top-down approach, starting with a "thread" (map) of the overall mission that captures all key mission elements and then the systems that support their execution. While the authors do not reduce the problem of cybersecurity risk assessment to a turnkey solution, they present useful methods for triaging areas of greatest concern to mission success while limiting detailed investigation of vulnerabilities and threats to only the most critical areas. Their framework is designed to be done at scale, to be applicable across scenarios, and to be clear in how it works.

Key Findings

Analyzing mission impact at scale with reasonable resource expenditures is a primary challenge

  • Even narrowly defined missions require a vast number of systems, and each system can be quite complex.
  • Multiply the complexity of just one mission across every mission in the U.S. Air Force and the number of systems to assess becomes infeasible.

How a mission is performed changes as new systems are introduced, old systems are modified, and tactics, techniques, and procedures evolve

  • Changes to systems induce changes to system vulnerabilities and, concurrently, the threat evolves.
  • As missions, vulnerabilities, and threats change, risk assessment must be reexamined.

One of the peculiar characteristics of cyberspace is the ineffectiveness of redundancy

  • Redundancy does not provide robustness against cyber attack.
  • Redundant components share common vulnerabilities to cyber attack.

Loss of command and control can injure a mission without any system or component failure

  • Vulnerability to adversary manipulation of command and control is another peculiar cyber effect.
  • This type of cyber effect is not normally captured in techniques used in systems engineering for safety.

Decisionmakers often revert to intuition and judgment when they do not understand the workings of analysis

  • The more opaque analytical tools are, the more they are perceived as a “black box” and less trustworthy.
  • This reaction presents a motivation to be transparent so that the method can be trusted to guide decisions.


  • To execute mission impact assessment at scale and economize on effort, use methods that are familiar to systems engineering and a portfolio of criteria for mission criticality that can be used for triage.
  • When defining a mission, include no systems. Introduce the role of specific systems at a later stage in the analysis.
  • Separate work that is relatively stable over time from analysis that will need to be updated through the life cycle of a system.
  • Use existing and proven techniques when possible to be transparent so that decisionmakers understand how the analysis works and its limitations and will trust it to guide decisions.
  • Apply the concept of cyber separability to address the problem of redundancy.
  • Incorporate functional flow diagrams at the mission and the system level to address the issue of adversary command and control analysis.
  • To fully verify and validate the cyber mission thread analysis framework, the Air Force should apply and test it over a variety of different missions.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was commissioned by the Commander of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology, and Engineering, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition and Logistics and conducted by the Resource Management Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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