Tag Archives: DARPA Plan X

Showing off American Military Hackers: DARPA Plan X

oculus

At the Pentagon Wednesday (May 21, 2014) the armed forces’ far-out research branch known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency showed off its latest demos for Plan X, a long-gestating software platform designed to unify digital attack and defense tools into a single, easy-to-use interface for American military hackers. And for the last few months, that program has had a new toy: The agency is experimenting with using the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset to give cyberwarriors a new way to visualize three-dimensional network simulations–in some cases with the goal of better targeting them for attack.

“You’re not in a two-dimensional view, so you can look around the data. You look to your left, look to your right, and see different subnets of information,” Darpa’s Plan X program manager Frank Pound told WIRED in an interview. “With the Oculus you have that immersive environment. It’s like you’re swimming in the internet…..If Plan X’s Oculus software ever reaches the eyeballs of actual soldiers–a development that Darpa says is still years away–Pound doesn’t deny that the interface would be used for actual offensive hacking as well as defense and reconnaissance. Like the rest of Plan X, he says it’s meant to be a simpler and more intuitive way for the U.S. Cyber Command and other American military hackers to visualize everything they do in their cyberwar operations. “Think of Plan X like an aircraft carrier,” says Pound. “It can carry any weapon system or capability.”

That sort of admission will no doubt set off alarm bells for critics of the American military’s increasingly aggressive posture on the Internet. The revelation in 2012 that the United States created the Iran-targeted Stuxnet malware and a year of Edward Snowden’s leaks have already demonstrated that the NSA engages in more advanced cyberattack operations than practically any country on the planet. Enabling American hackers to launch those attacks with a tool that’s literally designed for video games could be seen as encouraging a brazen attitude towards cyberwar, disconnecting it from the reality of its consequences.

But Darpa’s Pound counters that safeguards against reckless hacking will be built into Plan X, and that it may actually reduce collateral damage from military cyberattacks by allowing soldiers to better understand the networks they’re attacking.

Excerpt from ANDY GREENBERG, Darpa Turns Oculus Into a Weapon for Cyberwar, Wired, May 23, 2014

The Digital Bombs of DARPA: Plan X

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Who is Preparing the Digital Bombs of DARPA: Plan X

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency DARPA has chosen six companies so far to define ways of understanding, planning, and managing military cyber warfare operations in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic networks.  DARPA has awarded six contracts collectively worth nearly $74 million for the Foundational Cyberwarfare (Plan X) project to conduct research into the nature of cyber warfare, and to develop strategies to seize and maintain U.S. cyber security and cyber attack dominance.

The contracts awarded are to Data Tactics, Intific, Raytheon SI Government Solutions,  Aptima, Apogee Research,  and the Northrop Grumman…

Today’s understanding of the cyber domain poses integration challenges with existing military capabilities, and connects computers using traceroute, packet analysis, and other techniques. In fact, current research is just beginning to answer questions about the cyber domain, DARPA officials say.

The Plan X program contractors will define a cyber battlespace as three main concepts: network map, operational units, and capability set.  The network map is a collection of nodes and edges, and shows how computers are connected; the network map is where military planners and operators interact. Operational units are platforms such as ships, aircraft, and armored combat vehicles that are part of the network topology. There are two primary types of operational units: entry nodes and support platforms.  An entry node gives direct physical access into a network, while support platforms control different aspects of an operation — similarly to how military fighters, bombers, and unmanned aircraft control different aspects of air campaigns.

The capability set involves technologies the military uses to control the cyber battlespace, and are divided into three categories: access, functional, and communication.  Access enables a user to run programs or payloads. Functional involves other types of technology that affect computers and networks, such as network scanners, denial-of-service, defense evasion, network and host reconnaissance, and operating system control. Communication helps entry nodes, support platforms, and system capabilities to exchange information.

The Plan X program seeks to integrate the cyber battlespace concepts of the network map, operational unit, and capability set in military cyber operations, and will be developed as an open platform architecture for integration with government and industry technologies.

The Plan X program is structured around an on-site collaborative research space (CRS) in Arlington, Va., where the program contractors will be organized as a virtual technology startup. Several contract awards are expected, and the program will run in four one-year phases.

Excerpt, John Keller, DARPA picks six companies to define enabling technologies for U.S. cyber warfare strategy, Military and Aerospace,  July 11, 2013

See also Digital Bombs: DARPA and the Digital Battlefield

Digital Bombs: DARPA and the Digital Battlefield

The Pentagon is turning to the private sector, universities and even computer-game companies as part of an ambitious effort to develop technologies to improve its cyberwarfare capabilities, launch effective attacks and withstand the likely retaliation.  The previously unreported effort, which its authors have dubbed Plan X, marks a new phase in the nation’s fledgling military operations in cyberspace, which have focused more on protecting the Defense Department’s computer systems than on disrupting or destroying those of enemies.  Plan X is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon division that focuses on experimental efforts and has a key role in harnessing computing power to help the military wage war more effectively.  “If they can do it, it’s a really big deal,” said Herbert S. Lin, a cybersecurity expert with the National Research Council of the National Academies. “If they achieve it, they’re talking about being able to dominate the digital battlefield just like they do the traditional battlefield.”

Cyberwarfare conjures images of smoking servers, downed electrical systems and exploding industrial plants, but military officials say cyberweapons are unlikely to be used on their own. Instead, they would support conventional attacks, by blinding an enemy to an impending airstrike, for example, or disabling a foe’s communications system during battle.  The five-year, $110 million research program will begin seeking proposals this summer. Among the goals will be the creation of an advanced map that details the entirety of cyberspace — a global domain that includestens of billions of computers and other devices — and updates itself continuously. Such a map would help commanders identify targets and disable them using computer code delivered through the Internet or other means.

nother goal is the creation of a robust operating system capable of launching attacks and surviving counterattacks. Officials say this would be the cyberspace equivalent of an armored tank; they compare existing computer operating systems to sport-utility vehicles — well suited to peaceful highways but too vulnerable to work on battlefields.   The architects of Plan X also hope to develop systems that could give commanders the ability to carry out speed-of-light attacks and counterattacks using preplanned scenarios that do not involve human operators manually typing in code — a process considered much too slow.  Officials compare this to flying an airplane on autopilot along predetermined routes.  It makes sense “to take this on right now,” said Richard M. George, a former National Security Agency cyberdefense official. “Other countries are preparing for a cyberwar. If we’re not pushing the envelope in cyber, somebody else will.”

The shift in focus is significant, said officials from the Pentagon agency, known by the acronym DARPA. Cyber-operations are rooted in the shadowy world of intelligence-gathering and electronic-spying organizations such as the NSA.  Unlike espionage, military cyber­attacks would be aimed at achieving a physical effect — disrupting or shutting down a computer, for example — and probably would be carried out by the U.S. Cyber Command, the organization that was launched in 2010 next to the NSA at Fort Meade.  “Because the origins of cyberattack have been in the intelligence community, there’s a tendency to believe that simply doing more of what they’re doing will get us what we need,” said Kaigham J. Gabriel, acting director of DARPA. “That’s not the way we see it. There’s a different speed, scale and range of capabilities that you need. No matter how much red you buy, it’s not orange.”

Plan X is part of a larger DARPA effort begun several years ago to create breakthrough offensive and defensive cyber-­capabilities.  With a cyber budget of $1.54 billion from 2013 to 2017, the agency will focus increasingly on cyber-offense to meet military needs, officials say. DARPA’s research is designed to foster long-shot successes. In addition to helping create the Internet, the agency’s work gave rise to stealth jet technology and portable global-positioning devices.   “Even if 90 percent of their ideas don’t pan out,” said Martin Libicki, a cyberwar expert at Rand Corp., “the 10 percent that are worthwhile more than pay back the difference.”

A digital battlefield map, as DARPA envisions it, would plot nodes on the Internet, drawing from a variety of sources and changing as cyberspace changes.  “In a split microsecond you could have a completely different flow of information and set of nodes,” Gabriel said. “The challenge and the opportunity is to create a capability where you’re always getting a rapid, high-order look of what the Internet looks like — of what the cyberspace looks like at any one point in time.”  The ideal map would show network connections, analyze how much capacity a particular route has for carrying a cyberweapon and suggest alternative routes according to traffic flows, among other things.

The goal would be a visual representation of cyberspace that could help commanders make decisions on what to attack and how, while seeing any attacks coming from an enemy.  Achieving this will require an enormous amount of upfront intelligence work, experts say.  Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA director and a former CIA director, said he can imagine a map with red dots representing enemy computers and blue dots representing American ones.  When the enemy upgrades his operating system, the red dots would blink yellow, meaning the target is out of reach until cyber operators can determine what the new operating system is…

Plan X also envisions the development of technology that enables a commander to plan, launch and control cyberattacks.  A commander wanting to hit a computer that controls a target — a strategically important drawbridge in enemy territory, for example — should be able to predict and quantify battle damage while considering the timing or other constraints on a possible attack, said Dan Roelker, Plan X program manager.

Cyberwar experts worry about unintended consequences of attacks that might damage the flow of electricity to civilian homes or hospitals. A targeting system also should allow operators to stop a strike or reroute it before it damages systems that are not targeted — a fail-safe mechanism that experts say would be very difficult to engineer.  DARPA will not prescribe what should be represented on the digital map.  Some experts say they would expect to see power and transportation systems that support military objectives.

Daniel Kuehl, an information warfare professor at the National Defense University’s iCollege, said the Air Force built its history around attacks on infrastructure — in Korea, Vietnam, Serbia and Iraq.  “In all of those conflicts,” he said, “we went after the other side’s electricity with bombs.”  Today, he said, cyberweapons could be more humane than pulverizing power grids with bombs.

If a cyberwarrior can disrupt a computer system controlling an enemy’s electric power, the system theoretically can also be turned back on, minimizing the impact on civilians.  But retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, who as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until August pushed to develop military cyber-offense capabilities, said the military is focused less on power grids than on “tanks and planes and ships and anything that carries a weapon.”  “The goal is not the single beautiful target that ends the war in one shot. That doesn’t exist,” said Cartwright, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The military needs more of a brute-force approach that allows it to get at a thousand targets as quickly as possible.

Ellen Nakashima, With Plan X, Pentagon seeks to spread U.S. military might to cyberspace, Washington Post, May 30, 2012