DARPA’s Plan X Uses New Technologies to ‘See’ Cyber Effects
By Cheryl Pellerin, American Forces Press Service.
Washington D.C. – (AFPS)
– June 11, 2014 – 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.
DARPA's Plan X is a foundational cyber
warfare program that is developing platforms for the Defense Department. DARPA's
use of advanced touch-table displays brings the intuitiveness of gestures and
finger motions to advance the state of the art in cyber operations technology
interfaces. No longer will mission planners be required to carefully type IP
addresses or computer codes into forms. DARPA’s advanced touch table will give
them an immediately intuitive interface that naturally follows paradigms in
easy-to-use cell phone and tablet interfaces. Battle planners and cyber
operators won't need keyboards or mice to intuitively interact with cyberspace
elements, run complicated analytics or receive alert notifications.
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,"
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
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
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
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 55-inch touch table that lets
multiple users participate in cyber mission planning, war gaming and operations.
For centuries, military teams gathered around sand tables to
plan missions by making marks in real sand. Now, DARPA's use of advanced touch
table displays brings the intuitiveness of gestures and finger motions to
advance the state of the art in cyber operations technology interfaces.
No longer will mission planners be required to carefully type
IP addresses or computer codes into forms. DARPA’s advanced touch table gives an
immediately intuitive interface that naturally follows paradigms in easy-to-use
cell phone and tablet interfaces.
Battle planners and cyber operators won't need keyboards or
mice to intuitively interact with cyberspace elements, run complicated analytics
or receive alert notifications.
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
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
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
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."
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinAFPS)
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
DARPA Plan X
Special Report: Science and Technology