Inside DARPA’s “Plan X” For Cyberwar



On September 27, DARPA will hold a workshop to flesh out the government cyberwar strategy called “Plan X.” The one-day workshop consists of a general access session for government employees and contractors, along with a Secret-clearance and above closed session to draw a roadmap for the future of America’s cyberwar forces.

While the next great virus won’t be proposed at the Plan X workshop, the Defense Department’s cyberarmy infrastructure development plans (and the sweet government contracts that go with it) will. According to the Washington Post‘s Ellen Nakashima, Plan X has received $110 million in funding for the next five years.

A publicly available DARPA document (PDF) says that Plan X will “create revolutionary technologies for understanding, planning, and managing cyberwarfare in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic network environments” and “conduct novel research into the nature of cyberwarfare and support development of fundamental strategies and tactics needed to dominate the cyber battlespace.” In other words, Plan X will give Pentagon cybergeeks top-notch tools and research capabilities for the high-tech worms, malware, monitoring equipment, and network infrastructure hijinx that are an integral part of military capability circa 2012. DARPA, however, explicitly stated that Plan X will not fund research and development for the development of cyberweapons or vulnerability analysis.



Plan X will develop a series of futuristic tools for the Pentagon to use in cyberwar. DARPA is especially interested in the development of custom, secure operating systems and platforms for use in “hostile network environments.” According to the document, these secure operating systems are a priority for use in battle damage monitoring, communication relays, weapon deployment, and adaptive defense. While the agency explicitly stated Plan X will not fund R&D for cyberweapons, another area of development is script development for cyberwarfare efforts, which will effectively partially automate cyberwar exercises. DARPA likens these mission scripts, which will be overseen by human operators, to the “auto-pilot function on modern aircraft.”

The most interesting idea, however, is building giant visual maps for cyberwar. DARPA is seeking assistance in developing visual, intuitive views of large-scale cyber battlespaces for situational awareness in war games. It sounds like, if Plan X works successfully, the Pentagon will have a sweet real-time visual map of large swaths of the Internet within a decade.

“The fascinating aspect of DARPA is that it’s a small, agile, forward-thinking arm of the Department of Defense that is driven by projects with relative short timelines. Their mission of researching emerging technologies for military use is a perfect match for the Defense Department’s concerted efforts to better protect the nation in the cyber world,” says Josh Pauli, an academic at Dakota State University specializing in cybersecurity.

DARPA is seeking a systems architecture team to oversee development for Plan X. At the workshop, to be held in Virginia, participants will be briefed on Plan X, shown prototypes of Plan X technologies, and DARPA will hold teaming opportunities for government and contractor employees. The press and general public are barred from attending.


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