Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 11, 2016

Plan X, the Military’s Cyberwar Dashboard

At a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing this week, Alabama Republican Richard C. Shelby asked the head of the military’s top research agency about the status of Plan X, a mysterious-sounding cyberwarfare program that is still in development. It’s been in the news before — a few months ago contractor Raytheon was hired to handle part of the project — and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a public Web page for it. But it’s not the kind of thing that officials frequently speak about for the public record.

So what is Plan X? Arati Prabhakar, head of DARPA, explained it this way in response to Shelby’s question:

Much of the conversation has been about computers and networks, those are important to keep secure, but all of our embedded systems are highly vulnerable. One of our researchers, a couple of years ago, showed that they could hack the speedometer on a car. So, if a speedometer on a car is vulnerable, then, I think it’s a good thing to realize that all of our embedded military systems are also vulnerable. Everything has a computer in it today.

So, Plan X is a foundational cyberwarfare program that we are building to allow us to have the visibility and the understanding of cyberspace so that we can start to deal with how cyberwarfare is happening today, and where it will be in the future. We think it’s going to become integral to the kinetic warfighting of the future. We want to give our senior decision makers the ability to see what’s happening in cyberspace, to plan actions, to be able to predict collateral effects to avoid effects that they want to make sure don’t happen, and then to do battle damage assessments. Those are the core capabilities.

Sounds a bit like one of those futuristic Hollywood war-room setups, with cyberspace included alongside information about tanks and planes and ships. The idea of creating new tools to track data extends to other areas, Prabhakar said in another section of his testimony:

In a very different arena, we can see the massive scale of information changing every aspect of national security. So, here, we’re creating, first, a new breed of cybersecurity technologies, so that we can actually trust the information that we’ve become so reliant on. We’re also inventing new tools to keep up with and to start using this explosion of data. One example is the new program that we have that is tackling the networks involved in human trafficking. Today these trafficking networks very easily can hide in the vast data that’s online. So, really finding ways to see those bad actors, and vast volumes of data is part of the objective of our programs.

Prabhakar’s full written testimony is available through the Senate Appropriations website.

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