Three years after the Defense Department named cyberspace a new domain of warfare, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is unveiling technologies that soon could make it possible for military leaders and warriors to plan and execute real-time cyber missions in a territory charted so far only by machines.
Plan X is a DARPA program announced in May 2012 in which experts conduct novel research in the cyber domain and seek to create revolutionary technologies that will help the cyber workforce understand, plan and manage DOD cyber missions in large-scale, dynamic network environments.
The program does not create cyber weapons or fund research and development efforts in vulnerability analysis, according to DARPA’s Plan X website.
Plan X program manager Frank Pound – who served on active duty in the Marine Corps from 1989 to 1994 and as a reservist from 1995 to 2004 with a 2003 tour in Iraq – said the program has several goals.
“The big goal of Plan X is to make cyber operations tools and their capabilities more available to the common military, which right now doesn’t have [such] cyber capabilities,” he told American Forces Press Service during a recent interview.
Every weapon available to a service member is well understood, and doctrine describes how to use it, he added. Service members have studied weapons effects, battle damage assessments and collateral damage.
“What we’re trying to do with Plan X is to quantify cyber effects so the military understands how [such effects] work and what the collateral damage could be,” Pound said.
A cyber effect, according to a range of online sources, can cause damage by manipulating, disrupting, denying, degrading or destroying computers, information or communications systems, networks, or physical or virtual infrastructure controlled by computers or information systems, or the data on such systems.
“A cyber effect could cause damage to an adversary’s network or to a hospital next door,” Pound explained. “We want to make sure when we deploy a cyber effect at an adversary that there’s no collateral damage. Right now, that [capability] really doesn’t exist, except in small enclaves.”
Plan X developers want to make cyber-effects use and assessments similar to those for kinetic weaponry available to a Marine in the field or a Navy captain going through a dangerous port area.
A military commander, Pound said, “wants to be able to sense the cyber environment and know if he can deploy a counterattack.”
Another goal of Plan X is to provide cyber situational awareness globally across DOD, he added, from the strategic and tactical levels all the way down to the troops in the field.
“Right now, they don’t have a good ability to sense the cyber environment, and … in the last five years, there’s been a tidal wave of mobile devices and cyber things hitting the market,” Pound said. “Our adversaries use them to plan attacks, so Plan X at the tactical level would be able to provide that cyber situational awareness to commanders in the field.”
Imagine a Marine with a weapon in his hand going into a firefight in cyberspace, Pound said. That Marine also has a device that has built-in Plan X capability linked to a tactical operations center.
“A commander could say, ‘Hey Marine, there’s a threat out there — Wi-Fi adapters and Bluetooth [wireless technology] that we didn’t know were there. Let’s find out what they are,’” the program manager said.
At the tactical center, experts analyze the networks and find either that the devices are innocuous or that they’re part of an ambush, Pound said, and get that information to the Marine.
“The idea,” he added, “is not to take the weapon out of the Marine’s hand.”
Pound said that is the tactical-use case for Plan X – information is all “boiled back up” to U.S. Cyber Command so Cybercom has a global view of all tactical situations and a strategic view of DOD enterprise networks.
Describing a potential enterprise network scenario, the program manager said that if an administrator makes a mistake and plugs a laptop into a high-side, or secure, network and into the public Internet at the same time, Plan X could find the security breach instantaneously and the machine could be shut down.
“We want to scale this system to support over 300,000 users,” Pound said. “We want a Plan X system in every military installation, every combat information center on a ship, and at the tactical level in tactical operations centers.”
Even though Plan X was announced in 2012, DARPA is only eight months into the program, mainly due to “a big hit” taken at the DOD research and development arm by severe budget cuts known as sequestration, he added.
“But we re-energized the program, and we’re extremely happy with the software development philosophy we’ve made,” Pound said. “We intend to transition the program out to DOD and Cyber Command in October 2017.”
Some military commanders have described Plan X as a way to “map” the network-speed territory of cyberspace, or to allow warfighters to “see” what they’re doing during a military operation there.
But cyberspace, Pound said, doesn’t lend itself to cartography.
Science-fiction novelist William Gibson has called cyberspace “a graphic representation of data abstracted from … every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”
“Traditional military maps,” Pound explained, “are geographically based, with geographic views [and] things that map onto specific locations. Cyber is different.”
In cyberspace an Internet Protocol, or IP, address is a numerical label assigned to every device in a computer network that uses the IP for communication.
“Not every IP address is tied to a latitude and longitude on a map, so you can’t have this cartography,” Pound said. “You have to have alternate views of the information to show you the relationships among all the machines on the Internet.”
He added, “Machines have relationships [and] properties that are very important to understand. If you only have a geographic view showing where they may lie, you could make mistakes. So we provide these alternate views, the ability to map the Internet in alternative ways to allow you to see these very important relationships.”
Plan X is testing two new technologies that offer different views of such relationships. One is an advanced three-dimensional mission-planning technology called a holographic touch table display.
For centuries, military teams gathered around sand tables to plan missions by making marks in real sand. Now, DARPA’s touch table display pioneers advanced 3-D technology that creates a real-time, color, 360-degree, interactive 3-D holographic display. The technology allows each 3-D holographic object to project in each direction the same amount of light projected by the original object for 360-degree viewing. Battle planners don’t need special glasses or equipment to see dynamically displayed 3-D data and video, or to intuitively interact with their assets in cyberspace.
The other Plan X technology is a virtual-reality head-mounted display called the Oculus Rift, which puts warfighters in cyberspace and helps them track adversaries, friendly forces and mission resources.
“We’ve done some early experimentation with this new device, the Oculus Rift, a pair of 3-D goggles that allows us to represent a lot of information in a 3-D environment so you can essentially swim through the information and understand it,” Pound explained.
With Plan X and its visualization environment, the program has abstracted away many of the faster-than-human complexities and presents and distills only information the operator would need to react to and counter an adversary’s actions, he added.
“There may be some checkpoints in a plan where the adversary does something we didn’t plan for. The idea with the Oculus is to give the operator the ability to counter that and use his native human intuition to counter those attacks,” the program manager said.
A lot of autonomy is built into the system, he added, but there are also many human-in-the-loop checkpoints.
“We can’t automate the whole thing, because conditions could come up that we didn’t plan for. We want human beings to be able to step in and answer the really hard questions that computers aren’t so good at answering right now,” Pound said.
Using early prototypes, he added, “we found out that the Oculus is very useful in understanding these environments. We’re also using the touch table. Both environments are useful in understanding” the environment — the touch table for planning missions and the Oculus Rift for executing missions.
Plan X and its advanced technologies also will be helpful with another challenge, Pound said.
“Cyber Command is trying to staff up to be part of this new effort, and where are they going to get all these people? They’ll have to get kids out of college and high school, enlisted [service members] and officers,” he added, “and natively they’re going to understand technology like this. Using these devices will be very intuitive to them.”
The Plan X program focuses heavily on intuitive devices and interfaces, Pound said. “We’re trying to get rid of the keyboard. Typing IP addresses in the future, especially with the move to [the more complex 128-bit Internet Protocol version 6, or] IPv6, is going to be difficult, and we don’t want people making mistakes.”
Pound said industry spinoffs of Plan X technologies are possible, as is true of all government programs.
“Siri on your iPhone was a DARPA program that spun off to Apple,” he added, “and technologies could spin off out of Plan X, especially with some of the work we’re doing with the open-source community.”
The program manager said he could envision the public in the future using Plan X-derived cyberspace mapping technologies to go physically or as avatars onto the Internet to explore websites or network processes, or to play games or go shopping.
“That model … is fully supported by our use of the Oculus,” Pound said. “The idea of a virtual world and being able to act with it and walk around in it would translate nicely into Internet terms and being able to walk around the Internet in a virtual environment.”
He added, “Think of part of Plan X as like Google Earth or Google Maps. We want to make it that easy for the military to use – to filter information and look at different routes and alternatives for routes and see where there’s a lot of traffic, just like with Google maps. That’s what we’re trying to do.”