What is the cyber kill chain?

The framework of the cyber kill chain serves as a valuable tool for comprehending the various stages of a cyberattack, spanning from the initial reconnaissance to the execution of the attack and subsequent data exfiltration. Its application aids both organizations and individuals in gaining insights into hacker methodologies, enabling proactive measures during the early phases of a cyber threat.

cyber kill chain
cyber kill chain

Originating from Lockheed Martin in 2011, the cyber kill chain draws inspiration from military attack models to deconstruct and analyze cyberattacks systematically. Initially devised for target identification and destruction, this methodology has been adapted to safeguard computer systems against advanced persistent threats (APTs), encompassing malicious elements such as malware, ransomware, Trojans, spoofing, and social engineering tactics. Professionals and organizations leverage this approach to detect and thwart malicious activities, fortifying defenses against potential cyber threats.

The seven steps of the cyber kill chain

The cyber kill chain model delineates its approach through seven distinct phases, each crucial in dissecting the external attack process. This breakdown empowers cybersecurity professionals to identify and intervene at various stages, preventing potential threats from progressing further. The following are the seven phases integral to the cyber kill chain model.


The initial phase involves the gathering of information, where attackers explore potential targets and pinpoint vulnerabilities. Utilizing tools like search engines, web archives, packet sniffers, port scanners, public cloud services, and network mapping, attackers amass data about the victim. Various techniques, including researching third parties associated with the target, such as company employees through social media, aid in identifying potential weaknesses in technology or human behavior that attackers can exploit for subsequent phases of the attack.


When a perpetrator acquires intelligence about a target, they devise one or more attack strategies to exploit identified vulnerabilities. These strategies often entail the use of malware, ransomware, or viruses, enabling unauthorized access to the victim’s space. In the process of weaponization, hackers may create back doors, ensuring persistence in their attack even if administrators detect and close their initial entry point.

In the planning and execution of a cyberattack, hackers consider factors such as processing power, target vulnerability, cost, traceability, and time-to-value. They typically opt for the path of least resistance to infiltrate your network or application. Hence, conducting routine security assessments and scrutinizing all potential access points in your network becomes imperative.

Attackers employ various methods to gain entry to a computer or network, including inadequate encryption, system misconfiguration, weak or stolen passwords, remote access tools, system relationships, social engineering, zero-day attacks, brute force attacks, malicious code injection (SQL injection), trojans, among others. Once inside your network, hackers aim to navigate, extract valuable information, and remain undetected for as long as possible. Employing zero-trust security practices allows verification of every connection attempt to your systems before granting access, effectively controlling malicious activities.


During the delivery phase, the attacker sends the weaponized payload to the target. The specific execution of the attack hinges on the vulnerability identified in the reconnaissance phase and the chosen attack vector in the weaponization step. Attack vectors are commonly transmitted into systems through email phishing combined with social engineering, drive-by downloads from websites, infected USB drives, or direct network connections.

Hackers employ diverse methods to deliver cyberattacks. For instance, they may prompt malware to act instantly or program cyberattacks to launch after a delay or in response to a specific user action. Typically, these attacks involve a singular intrusion, where the attacker gains entry, retrieves the necessary information, and exits. However, in some instances, hackers establish malicious programs to persist within the system, continually monitoring and controlling activities.

Exploitation Phase

In the exploitation phase, the assailant triggers the designated malware or virus to capitalize on vulnerabilities in the targeted system. On occasion, these programs utilize concealing features to obscure their malevolent activities within the network, ensuring they go unnoticed.

Installation Phase

Following the successful exploitation, the attacker proceeds to install additional tools or malware to establish control over the system and maintain persistent access. This may involve deploying a backdoor, a remote access trojan, or other types of malware, granting the attacker the ability to enter and exit the system without raising suspicion.

Hackers may opt for reentry using rootkits or exploiting weak credentials without employing the initial attack vectors. Until these intrusion methods avoid arousing suspicion among system administrators, detecting the invasion can be challenging, allowing the attackers to freely navigate internal systems.

Command and Control (C2) Phase

During the command and control phase, the attacker sets up a mechanism to manipulate the compromised system and remotely extract sensitive data. This data retrieval process might entail installing ransomware or spyware on the target network, providing the attackers with the means to extract valuable assets. This allows malicious actors to move laterally within the system, establishing additional entry points.

Detection in the C2 phase signifies that the hackers have already infiltrated the system. Therefore, it is imperative to implement intrusion detection systems and other security measures to identify malicious behavior before it becomes irreversible.

Actions on Objectives Phase

Ultimately, the attacker takes decisive actions to fulfill their primary objectives, such as pilfering sensitive corporate data or personal information for financial gain, erasing data to disrupt services, collecting strategic company information, or preparing for more extensive security breaches.

During this stage of the kill chain, immediate response from system administrators is crucial, as the attacker will move swiftly to extract sensitive data and maximize profits. The swifter the security team detects malicious activity on the network, the lower the potential risk.

Evolution of the Cyber Kill Chain

The cyber kill chain has undergone continuous evolution in response to changes in attackers’ tactics. Since its introduction in 2011, cybercriminals have significantly enhanced their techniques and become more audacious in their actions. Although the cyber kill chain model remains a valuable tool, the current cyberattack lifecycle is less predictable and defined compared to a decade ago. Cyber attackers frequently deviate from or combine steps, particularly in the initial stages, reducing the time and opportunities for organizations to detect and thwart threats early on. Moreover, the widespread use of the kill chain model may inadvertently provide cyber attackers insights into how organizations structure their defenses, aiding them in evading detection at crucial points in the attack lifecycle.

Critiques and Concerns Related to the Cyber Kill Chain

While the cyber kill chain serves as a widely adopted framework for developing cybersecurity strategies, it possesses significant flaws that deserve attention.

Perimeter Security

A common critique revolves around the cyber kill chain’s emphasis on perimeter security and malware prevention. This concern is particularly pertinent as organizations shift away from traditional on-premises networks toward cloud-based solutions. The surge in remote work, coupled with the proliferation of personal devices, IoT technology, and advanced applications like robotic process automation (RPA), has vastly expanded the attack surface for many enterprises. Consequently, cybercriminals now have numerous points of access to exploit, making it more challenging for companies to secure each endpoint effectively.

Attack Vulnerabilities

Another potential limitation of the kill chain lies in its inability to detect certain types of attacks. The original framework, for instance, falls short in identifying insider threats, a significant risk with high success rates. Additionally, attacks leveraging compromised credentials by unauthorized parties cannot be detected within the standard kill chain framework.

The cyber kill chain may also overlook web-based attacks, including Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), SQL Injection, DoS/DDoS, and certain Zero-Day Exploits. Notably, the 2017 Equifax breach resulted from a compromised software patch, highlighting a web attack that went undetected due to inadequate security measures.

Lastly, while the framework is designed to identify sophisticated, well-researched attacks, it often misses attackers who forego extensive reconnaissance. For instance, those utilizing a “spray and pray” technique may avoid detection traps by sheer happenstance.

Role of the Cyber Kill Chain in Cybersecurity

The Cyber Kill Chain serves a crucial role in shaping organizations’ cybersecurity strategies, notwithstanding its limitations. In embracing this model, entities must integrate services and solutions that facilitate the detection of attackers at various stages of the threat lifecycle through the application of threat intelligence techniques. Additionally, they need to prevent unauthorized access, thwart the unauthorized sharing, saving, alteration, exfiltration, or encryption of sensitive data, respond to attacks in real-time, and put a halt to the lateral movement of attackers within the network.

Cyber Kill Chain vs MITRE ATT&CK Framework

In comparison, the MITRE ATT&CK framework serves a similar purpose as the Cyber Kill Chain by documenting and tracking the techniques employed by attackers throughout different stages of a cyberattack. Renowned as one of the most respected resources in cybersecurity, the ATT&CK framework employs a common lexicon, allowing stakeholders, cyber defenders, and vendors to communicate effectively about the nature of a threat and strategies to counter it. Unlike the sequential nature of the Cyber Kill Chain, the ATT&CK framework is not chronological and acknowledges that attackers may alter tactics and techniques during an attack.

Furthermore, the ATT&CK framework provides a more granular view by delineating specific tactics and techniques to describe attacker behavior. It transcends mere descriptions of attack stages, focusing on modeling precise attacker actions and motivations. Unlike the Lockheed Martin Cyber Kill Chain, which offers a high-level illustration of adversary goals without specifying how these goals are achieved, MITRE emphasizes that its framework is a “mid-level adversary model.” To strike a balance, MITRE Engenuity’s TTP model positions tactics as intermediate stepwise goals, while techniques outline how each tactic is executed.

Drawbacks of the cyber kill chain

While the cyber kill chain serves as a valuable framework for comprehending and addressing cybersecurity threats and attack vulnerabilities, it is not without its limitations. Initially designed to identify ongoing external attacks rather than prevent them, the model focuses on outside threats but fails to recognize potential insider threats originating from employees and contractors.

Developed in 2011, the cyber kill chain model exhibits outdated methods, rendering it susceptible to advanced attacks in 2024. Its static structure and emphasis on perimeter security assume a consistent attack pattern, but hackers can deviate or repeat steps, making invasion detection challenging. Beyond these drawbacks, the framework is resource-intensive, demanding significant investments in terms of money, technology, and expertise.

In light of these limitations, exploring alternatives to the cyber kill chain becomes essential. One such alternative is the unified kill chain, an expansion of the cyber kill chain framework that merges principles from both the kill chain and Mitre ATT&CK. This approach offers a more adaptable perspective, particularly suitable for sophisticated threats that do not conform to the linear cyber kill chain procedure.

While the cyber kill chain primarily serves as a framework for dissecting the process of a cyberattack, it can significantly contribute to organizations’ overall cybersecurity posture. Understanding how attackers operate enables the development of targeted security strategies. Identifying the typical stages of a cyberattack empowers security teams to recognize gaps, allocate system resources effectively, and enhance response strategies.

Despite its value, organizations should adopt additional strategies for comprehensive defense:

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