The previously unreported effort, which its authors have dubbed Plan X, marks a new phase in the nation’s fledgling military operations in cyberspace, which have focused more on protecting the Defense Departments’s own computer systems than on disrupting or destroying those of enemies.
A digital battlefield
The shift in focus is significant, said officials from the Pentagon agency, known by its acronym DARPA. Cyber operations are rooted in the shadowy world of intelligence gathering and electronic spying organizations such as the National Security Agency.
Unlike espionage, military cyberattacks would be aimed at achieving a physical effect — disrupting or shutting down a computer, for example — and probably would be carried out by U.S. Cyber Command, the organization that was launched in 2010 next to NSA in Fort Meade.
Cyberwarfare conjures images of smoking servers, downed electrical systems and exploding industrial plants, but military officials say that cyberweapons are unlikely to be used on their own. Instead, they would support conventional attacks, by blinding an enemy to an impending airstrike, for example, or disabling a foe’s communications system during battle.
Another goal is the creation of a new, robust operating system capable of both launching attacks and surviving counter-attacks. Officials say this would be the cyberspace equivalent of an armored tank; they compare existing computer operating systems to SUVs — well-suited to peaceful highways but too vulnerable to work on battlefields.
The architects of Plan X also hope to develop systems that could give commanders the ability to carry out speed-of-light attacks and counterattacks using pre-planned scenarios that do not involve human operators manually typing in code – a process considered much too slow. Officials compare this to flying an airplane on autopilot along predetermined routes.
Plan X also envisions the development of technology that enables a commander to plan, launch and control cyberattacks.
A commander wanting to hit a computer that controls a target — a strategically important drawbridge in enemy territory, for example — should be able to predict and quantify battle damage while considering the timing or other constraints on a possible attack, said Dan Roelker, Plan X program manager.
Cyberwar experts worry about unintended consequences of attacks that might damage the flow of electricity to civilian homes or hospitals.
A targeting system also should allow operators to stop a strike or reroute it before it damages systems that are not targeted — a fail-safe mechanism that experts say would be very difficult to engineer.
DARPA will not prescribe what should be represented on the digital map. Some experts say they would expect to see power and transportation systems that support military objectives.
National Defense University information warfare professor Daniel Kuehl, who retired from the Air Force in 1994, said the Air Force built its history around attacks on infrastructure — in Korea, Vietnam, Serbia and Iraq. “In all of those conflicts,” he said, “we went after the other side’s electricity with bombs.”
Today, he said, cyberweapons could be more humane than pulverizing power grids with bombs. If a cyber warrior can disrupt a computer system controlling an enemy’s electric power, the system theoretically can also be turned back on, minimizing impact on civilians.
But retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, who as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until August had pushed to develop military cyber offensive capabilities, said the military is focused less on power grids than on “tanks and planes and ships and anything that carries a weapon.”
“The goal is not the single beautiful target that ends the war in one shot. That doesn’t exist,” said Cartwright, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The military needs more of a brute force approach that allows it to get at a thousand targets as quickly as possible. ”
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