See why 9,000+ companies trust Darktrace
Thanks, your request has been received
A member of our team will be in touch with you shortly.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

What is the Cyber Kill Chain?

What is the Cyber Kill Chain in cyber security?

The Cyber Kill Chain is a concept introduced by Lockheed Martin that represents the stages or steps involved in a cyberattack. It serves as a framework for understanding and analyzing the different phases of an attack, from the initial reconnaissance to achieving the attacker’s objective.

The steps of the cybersecurity kill chain process

The Cyber Kill Chain typically consists of the following stages:

1. Reconnaissance: Gathering information about the target.

2. Weaponization: Creating or obtaining a malicious payload.

3. Delivery: Transmitting the payload to the target.

4. Exploitation: Taking advantage of vulnerabilities to execute the payload.

5. Installation: Attack vector is installed on the victim’s system.

6. Command & Control (C2): Establishing communication with the compromised system.

7. Actions on Objectives: Achieving the attacker’s ultimate goal.


The first stage of the Cyber Kill Chain is "Reconnaissance." This stage involves the attacker gathering information about the target, such as identifying potential vulnerabilities, key personnel, network configurations, and putting security measures in place. This phase can include passive techniques like open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering or active scanning and probing of the target’s system. Reconnaissance can occur both online and offline, with attackers leveraging various methods to gain insights into their target's weaknesses. This stage also involves penetration testing to determine potential entry points, helping attackers plan their next moves. Understanding reconnaissance helps defenders anticipate and mitigate threats before they escalate.


The weaponization stage of the Cyber Kill Chain occurs after reconnaissance has taken place and the attacker has gathered enough information about potential targets and their vulnerabilities. During this stage, the attacker creates or obtains a malicious payload, such as malware or a weaponized document, that is designed to exploit specific vulnerabilities identified during the reconnaissance phase.  

Weaponization can involve developing new types of malware or modifying existing tools to be used in the attack. For example, cybercriminals may make minor modifications to an existing ransomware variant to create a new tool. This phase also includes preparing the payload to achieve the attacker's objectives, while potentially incorporating measures to evade detection by security solutions. Understanding weaponization helps defenders anticipate how attackers might craft their tools.

Real-world Cyber Kill Chain examples of weaponization include customizing malware to bypass antivirus software or creating phishing emails with weaponized attachments to exploit user vulnerabilities.


The "Delivery" stage of the Cyber Kill Chain is where the attacker transmits a malicious payload to the target. This can occur through various means, including phishing emails, infected attachments, or compromised websites. Delivery is crucial for the attack to progress, as it sets the stage for executing the malicious payload.

Beyond traditional methods, delivery can also involve hacking into networks and exploiting software or hardware vulnerabilities. Attackers may leverage social engineering techniques to increase the likelihood of success. Knowing how an attacker will deliver a cyber-attack helps defenders implement measures like malware detection and inline threat scanning to intercept these payloads before they reach their targets. Effective Cyber Kill Chain examples of delivery include sending spear-phishing emails with weaponized attachments or exploiting a known vulnerability in network software to gain unauthorized access and deliver malware.


The "Exploitation" stage of the Cyber Kill Chain involves taking advantage of vulnerabilities identified during reconnaissance to execute the malicious payload delivered in the previous stage. This can include exploiting software vulnerabilities, weak configurations, or human errors to gain control over the target system.

Once the payload is delivered, attackers can move laterally across the network to reach their targets, installing tools, running scripts, or modifying security certificates along the way. A lack of deception measures in the network can make it easier for attackers to navigate and reach their objectives undetected. Understanding how exploitation fits into the Cyber Kill Chain helps defenders anticipate these movements and implement effective security measures to disrupt the attacker's progress.

Command and Control

"Command and Control" (C2) is the stage where the attacker establishes communication with the compromised system or network. This communication allows the attacker to maintain control, deliver commands, and receive data from the compromised systems. It is a critical stage as it enables ongoing interaction and control over the target.

During the C2 phase, attackers use the successfully installed malware to control devices or identities remotely within the target’s network. They may also move laterally to avoid detection and establish additional points of entry. An example of this communication is when attackers use C2 servers to direct computers infected with malware, such as the Mirai botnet, to overload a website with traffic, causing a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. Another example is instructing compromised systems to carry out cybercrime objectives, such as data exfiltration or further network penetration. Understanding the C2 stage of the Cyber Kill Chain helps defenders disrupt the attacker's communication channels and regain control over compromised systems, thereby mitigating the impact of the attack.

Actions on Objectives

The "Actions on Objective" stage is the final step in the Cyber Kill Chain, representing the attacker’s ultimate goal. This stage occurs after cyber-criminals have developed their weapons, installed them onto a target’s network, and taken control of the systems. The attacker's objectives can vary and may include data theft, system disruption, encryption, or exfiltration.

For instance, attackers might steal sensitive information, use ransomware as a tool for extortion, or weaponize a botnet to launch a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. This phase signifies the completion of the attack's primary objective, whether it's to disrupt operations, extract valuable data, or monetize the attack through ransom demands. Understanding this stage helps defenders recognize the end goals of an attack and prepare appropriate response strategies to mitigate the impact.


Immediately following the exploitation phase, the installation phase is when the attacker attempts to install malware and other cyber-weapons onto the target’s systems.

This stage involves setting up tools that allow the attacker to take control of the system and obtain valuable data. Attackers may use command-line interfaces, backdoors, and Trojan horses to establish a foothold within the network. Creating backdoors ensures the attacker can maintain access to the system even if the initial entry point is discovered and closed.

Effective installation allows attackers to move in and out of the target network undetected, facilitating further exploitation and data exfiltration. Understanding this phase of the Cyber Kill Chain is crucial for defenders to implement measures that detect and prevent malicious installations, thus protecting the integrity of the network.


Some security experts advocate for the inclusion of an eighth stage in the Cyber Kill Chain: monetization.

This stage specifically focuses on the cybercriminal's financial gain from an attack. During the monetization phase, attackers might sell stolen data on the dark web or initiate ransom requests, demanding payment in exchange for not releasing or selling sensitive information, such as personal data or industry secrets. The rise of cryptocurrency has facilitated the increase in monetizing cyberattacks, as it allows attackers to easily and safely request and receive funds. Understanding the monetization stage helps organizations prepare for the financial threats posed by cyberattacks and implement strategies to protect their valuable data from being exploited for profit.

How does the Cyber Kill Chain model help organizations understand cyber-attacks?

The Cyber Kill Chain model helps organizations by providing a structured framework to:

  • Visualize and understand the stages of an attack.
  • Identify and focus on critical points in the attack process.
  • Develop strategies and defenses to detect and mitigate threats at each stage.
  • Enhance incident response capabilities by recognizing where in the chain an attack can be disrupted or prevented.

Cyber Kill Chain Critiques

The Cyber Kill Chain, while popular, has significant critiques. It emphasizes perimeter security and malware prevention, which are increasingly inadequate as organizations move to cloud-based environments. The rise of remote work, personal devices, IoT, and advanced applications has expanded the attack surface, making it harder to secure all endpoints.

The framework struggles with detecting insider threats, attacks using compromised credentials, and web-based attacks like XSS, SQL Injection, DoS/DDoS, and Zero-Day Exploits. The 2017 Equifax breach exemplifies these shortcomings.

Furthermore, the first two attack phases—reconnaissance and weaponization—occur outside the target network, complicating defense efforts. The Cyber Kill Chain often misses less sophisticated attacks, such as "spray and pray" tactics, that don't follow the expected patterns.

Due to these limitations, many experts recommend complementary frameworks like Extended Detection and Response (XDR) and the MITRE ATT&CK framework, which provide a more comprehensive approach to modern cybersecurity threats.

How can security solutions and strategies be applied to detect and prevent cyberattacks at various stages of the Cyber Kill Chain?

Organizations can apply security solutions and strategies to detect and prevent cyberattacks at various stages of the Cyber Kill Chain:


Network monitoring can be used to detect suspicious activity such as unauthorized network scans. Users can also undergo security awareness training to be mindful about what they post online.

Weaponization and Delivery

Email filtering and web filtering solutions to block malicious content and mitigate potential phishing attempts.


Regular vulnerability scans or penetration tests to identify vulnerabilities within the system that need to be patched. Intrusion Detection Systems or Intrusion Prevention Systems can also be used to detect and block exploitation attempts.

Command and Control

Utilize network monitoring and behavior analysis to identify unusual communication patterns. Firewall or DNS filtering can also be used to block unwanted connections.

Actions on Objective

Implement data loss prevention (DLP) and encryption to protect valuable assets.

Besides proactive defense strategies to mitigate attackers from gaining an initial foothold in the system, security teams should also be sufficiently prepared in incident response strategies to deal with the later stages in the Cyber Kill Chain.