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DARPA prepares to send Plan-X into battle

July 19, 2016 (Photo Credit: DARPA)

DARPA is close to completing a visually oriented environment that's designed to give cyber warriors instantaneous knowledge of a network attack. Under development since 2012, Plan-X marks the DoD's first major attempt to create a cyber battle space, fundamentally shifting the way the agency addresses and responds to network attacks.

"PlanX is needed to help military commanders, planners and operators synchronize and collaborate in order to understand, plan and execute cyber operations in real time," said Frank Pound, DARPA's Plan-X project manager. According to Pound, Plan-X will also reduce mission planning timelines, support scalable missions, facilitate access to relevant vantage points, provide effective situational awareness and collaboration and increase trust and confidence in missions via grounded metrics and a quantification of capabilities.

Into the field

Plan-X made its public debut in June, joining operators at the annual Cyber Flag and Cyber Guard joint cyber exercises. Plan-X's next big step is set for 2017, when the technology is scheduled for deployment to DoD and U.S. Cyber Command personnel. "As Plan-X successfully transitions to the Department of Defense, the end user would be military operators whose job is to conduct cyber operations," Pound said.

With slightly over a year left for the program, Plan-X has pivoted from a heavy research focus to productization, Pound noted. "We have increased exercise participation with the mindset of testing Plan-X and gaining feedback from outside users to refine the system," he said. "Additionally, we routinely engage with potential transition partners to understand their needs and requirements and adapt Plan-X accordingly."

Plan-X is a completely new, innovative concept that is gaining increased traction across the DoD, Pound said. "It leverages existing investments to amplify and democratize their utility to a much broader pool of new cyber operators," he explained.

Plan-X provides real time cyber battlespace navigation and reasoning along with graphical plan construction. "The data model is navigable in a visual way, similar to how people natively think about relationships between common objects," Pound said. "Under the hood, Plan-X provides a very lightweight on-demand execution environment controlled by a backend system which allows for streamlined storage and retrieval of cyber threat intelligence coming from existing cyber security products the DoD as already deployed," he said.

Pound noted that the Plan-X data model was influenced by an executive order that mandated a common way to share cyber threat intelligence between industry, DoD and civilian cyber infrastructure. "Plan-X includes a way to easily integrate existing investments for a common cyber operations platform.

Boosting efficiency and collaboration

Plan-X aims to make the operator's role more efficient and collaborative across cyber mission forces as well as traditional forces. "Plan-X will enable the Cyber Mission Force (CMF) to conduct Title 10 cyberspace operations in a more streamlined and coordinated manner," Pound said. Plan-X is designed to provide the CMF with a suite of capabilities — including hardware and software — to develop and manage a common network of linked capabilities that serve as the operator's platform. "Additionally, it could be integrated into cyberspace operations and support military operations in the air, land and sea domains across all phases of joint campaigns," Pound said.

DARPA plans to fund Plan-X through the end of fiscal year 2017. The agency is currently working with the Army to transition the project to a joint program available to all cyber forces. Since the technology is entirely GOTS-based on open source tools, parts of it could be adapted to civilian agency use as well as to some commercial applications, Pound said. 

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