The History of Red Team Exercises

In the modern era, where cyber threats loom large and security breaches have become alarmingly frequent, organisations are constantly seeking ways to fortify their defences. One valuable tool in the cybersecurity arsenal is the red team exercise.

In this guide, we delve into the history of red team exercises, tracing their origins, evolution, and increasing prominence in the realm of security. By understanding the roots of this practice, we can appreciate its significance in helping organisations identify vulnerabilities, improve resilience, and ultimately protect against real-world adversaries.

When Did Red Team Exercises Originate?

The concept of red teaming can be traced back to ancient military strategies, where commanders employed teams to simulate enemy forces in war games. This practice allowed leaders to test their defences, tactics, and strategies against simulated adversaries before actual conflict. The term “red team” was derived from the use of coloured team designations, with blue representing friendly forces and red symbolising the opposition.

In the late 20th century, red teaming transitioned from the military domain to corporate security. The first notable adoption occurred in the 1980s when the National Security Agency (NSA) recognised the need for proactive cybersecurity measures.

The NSA pioneered the concept of “red teams” tasked with assessing the security of classified systems. These teams acted as independent evaluators, simulating the actions of potential attackers and identifying weaknesses that required remediation.

How Have Red Team Exercises Evolved?

As cyber threats intensified in the digital age, the demand for effective security measures increased exponentially. Red team exercises evolved from simple penetration tests to comprehensive simulations that mirrored real-world attacks. Organisations across various industries began embracing the practice, leveraging external or internal teams to challenge their security infrastructure.

In the early 2000s, the concept of “red team plus” emerged, combining the efforts of red teams with additional specialists such as forensic experts, social engineers and physical security experts.

This approach aimed to provide a holistic evaluation of an organisation’s defences, considering not only technical vulnerabilities but also social engineering tactics, physical security weaknesses, and human factors.

Red team exercises gained further traction with the publication of the Mitre ATT&CK framework in 2015. This framework provides a standardised model for mapping the tactics and techniques employed by threat actors. It helped red teams enhance their simulations by aligning them with known threat behaviours and providing a more realistic representation of potential attacks.

How Prominent Are Red Team Exercises?

The increasing prominence of red team exercises can be attributed to their effectiveness in identifying vulnerabilities and enhancing an organisation’s overall security posture. By simulating realistic attack scenarios, red teams offer a unique perspective that traditional security assessments might miss. They go beyond automated vulnerability scans, actively probing the organisation’s defences and detecting vulnerabilities that could be exploited by real adversaries.

Red team exercises are particularly valuable for testing incident response plans and security personnel readiness. By simulating breaches, organisations can assess their ability to detect, respond, and recover from attacks effectively. These exercises help identify gaps in processes, systems, and training, enabling organisations to strengthen their incident response capabilities and minimise the impact of real incidents.

Furthermore, red team exercises provide an opportunity to foster a culture of security within an organisation. By exposing employees to simulated attacks and social engineering tactics, organisations can raise awareness about the importance of cybersecurity. Red team activities highlight the human element of security and the role that individuals play in safeguarding sensitive information.

What Does the Future of Red Teaming Look Like?

As the threat landscape continues to evolve, red team exercises must adapt to stay relevant. With the rapid growth of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), new attack vectors are emerging, requiring red teams to develop innovative techniques to assess vulnerabilities.

Automation and AI

Automation and AI-powered red teaming tools are likely to play a significant role in the future of red team exercises. These tools can enhance the efficiency and scalability of red teaming efforts, enabling organisations to simulate attacks at a larger scale and identify complex attack vectors more effectively.


Collaboration between red teams and blue teams is another area expected to gain prominence. By fostering better communication and knowledge sharing, organisations can bridge the gap between offensive and defensive security efforts. This collaboration allows for a more comprehensive understanding of an organisation’s security landscape, leading to improved defence strategies and response capabilities.