Plan X: Developing US Cyber Warfare Capabilities

Monday, June 04, 2012

Pierluigi Paganini

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(Translated from the original Italian)

Recent events have demonstrated the strategic importance of a cyber strategy, and many experts sustain that the cyberwar era has just begun.

Due to this, the Pentagon is recruiting private companies, universities and even computer-game companies to develop technologies to improve its cyber warfare capabilities.

Events such as the diffusion of the Flame malware and the revelations on the genesis of the Stuxnet virus are eliciting concerns from the US government regarding the possibility of cyber attacks against America.

The Obama administration is investing heavily in cyber defense, preparing to respond to cyber threats and also creating the conditions needed to launch effective attacks against foreign and hostile states. 

If confirmed, the 'Olympic Games' operation (Stuxnet) is the first sample of an offensive conducted in cyberspace and arranged without conventional weapons, using digital attacks instead of military operations.

Another project that will involve also private, non-military entities in what is considered "a call to arms", has been named Plan X. It is more oriented towards protecting the Defense Department’s computer systems than on disrupting or destroying those of potential enemies.

Plan X is a project from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), a Pentagon sector responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military.

“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.”

According to the fundamentals of military tactics, one of the main aspects of war is the having a deep understanding of the battlefield, and for this reason one of the main projects to be financed by the government is the tracking in cyberspace and all entities that populate it, and its map will have to be updated over time to allow precise monitoring of the main area of battle.

Other projects will be related to the hardening of Operating Systems to resist cyber attacks in different scenarios, and officials seem to have a clear idea that the OSs of the future will be totally different from the ones we ordinarily use.

Many experts maintain that one of the primary objectives is to develop a new generation of cyber soldier by way of an artificial intelligence able to prevent cyber attacks and can conduct powerful offensives automatically.

The research program promoted by DARPA has a duration of five years and will be financed with $110 million starting from this summer. The agency has allocated a total budget of $1.54 billion from 2013 to 2017 with the specific goal to increase cyber-offense capabilities.

Projects such as Plan X mark a turning point in the approach of US government to cybersecurity. Cyber warfare has always been a dark field, an unchallenged domain of intelligence representatives, but now the Pentagon intends to ask for support from private industry to develop these new cyber weapons.

But are we confident that Plan X is not simply a pretext to formalize what has been going on for years?

The industry recruitment model proposed is not new, and has long been adopted by other major powers such as China. In an ideal situation, the institution should start from the bottom at schools to instruct on cyber threats and educate students on the techniques of prevention.

This would only be a first step, which should then be followed by the arrangement of specific hacking and training programs. Many Eastern countries, especially China, are investing heavily in the potential of its young people, who are now enrolled and engaged in intense training programs to increase their cyber capabilities.

Lets consider the Chinese model: These new recruits are primarily interested in the subject and the central government provides a wide range of support for deserving students and their families. This in my view means they are looking ahead, preparing for a future that will radically change the way we live.

A global change is required involving the next generation, giving young people tools and knowledge to understand how disastrous can be a cyber attack and how much is at risik in the choice of participating in protest actions in the style of Anonymous, as with the same mode of attack it is possible to assault a hostile country, damaging telecommunications systems and other critical infrastructure.

The program launched by DARPA, in my opinion, comes at a crucial moment in which the strategic importance of the garrison in cyberspace has become a prerequisite for the cyber strategy of any country. Projects such as Plan X do not add anything new to the operational reality of many states, but it has formalized collaborations that go on for years in a more or less transparent way.

Cyber Weapons, systems and applications for monitoring, malware for cyber espionage all make use of the contributions of private industry.

The road is the right one, and we have crossed the threshold of a new era, one where we will fight wars with cyber weapon and bits instead of guns and bullets, one in which the hackers are a new generation of soldier.

Cross-posted from Security Affairs

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