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What Is DARPA's New 'Plan X' and What Does It Have to Do With Cyberwarfare?


With an increased pressure on both the defensive and offensive fronts of cyberwarfare, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is moving forward with a new classified program -- Plan X -- that will "create revolutionary technologies for understanding, planning, and managing cyberwarfare in real-time, large-scale, and dynamic network environments."

Or, to put it more simply, DARPA says Plan X will develop the necessary tools to "dominate the cyber battlespace." Wired's Danger Room has more on what this involves:

That means building tools to help warplanners assemble and launch online strikes in a hurry. It means, under Plan X, figuring out ways to assess the damage caused by a new piece of friendly military malware before it’s unleashed. And it means putting together a sort of digital battlefield map that allows the generals to watch the fighting unfold, as former Darpa acting director Ken Gabriel told the Washington Post: “a rapid, high-order look of what the Internet looks like — of what the cyberspace looks like at any one point in time.”

This article from the Washington Post earlier this year describes Plan X as a subset of the larger $1.54 billion cyber budget funded for 2013 through 2017.

Continued movement for Plan X is underway with a Proposers' Day Workshop, which will cover the areas DARPA hopes to involve in its research and system architecture of the program as whole, planned for September. Wired reports the plan is funded with $100 million for five years but the workshop notice states "the Plan X program is explicitly not funding research and development efforts in vulnerability analysis or cyberweapon generation." Essentially, this means Plan X will not be building the weapons themselves.

Here are the four areas of research that DARPA wants Plan X to cover, according to the workshop announcement:

  • Understanding the cyber battlespace: This area focuses on developing automated analysis techniques to assist human operators in planning cyber operations. Specifically, analyzing large- scale logical network topology characteristics of nodes (i.e., edge count, dynamic vs. static links, usage) and edges (i.e. latency, bandwidth, periodicity).
  • Automatically constructing verifiable and quantifiable cyber operations: This area focuses on developing high-level mission plans and automatically synthesizing a mission script that is executed through a human-on-the-loop interface, similar to the auto-pilot function in modern aircraft. This process will leverage formal methods to provably quantify the potential battle damage from each synthesized mission plan.
  • Developing operating systems and platforms designed to operate in dynamic, contested, and hostile network environments: This area focuses on building hardened “battle units” that can perform cyberwarfare functions such as battle damage monitoring, communication relay, weapon deployment, and adaptive defense.
  • Visualizing and interacting with large-scale cyber battlespaces: This area focuses on developing intuitive views and overall user experience. Coordinated views of the cyber battlespace will provide cyberwarfare functions of planning, operation, situational awareness, and war gaming.

Wired goes on to include online operations analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies saying Plan X is meant to give the military the tools to handle cyberwarfare "to the point where it's a part of routine military operations."

Check out more details of Wired's analysis of Plan X here.

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