Today, destructive cyberattacks — ones that cause servers to fry, radars to go dark, or centrifuges to spin out of control — have been assembled by relatively small teams of hackers. They’re ordered at the highest levels of government. They take months to plan. Their effects can be uncertain, despite all the preparation. (Insiders believe, for example, that the biggest network intrusion in the Pentagon’s history may have been an accidental infection, not a deliberate hack.)
With Plan X, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to change all that. It wants munitions made of 1s and 0s to be as simple to launch as ones made of metal and explosives. It wants cyberattack stratagems to be as predictable as any war plan can be. It wants to move past the artisanal era of hacking, and turn cyberwarfare into an industrial effort. Across the U.S. government, there are all kinds of projects to develop America’s network offense. None are quite like this.
“Plan X is a program that is specifically working towards building the technology infrastructure that would allow cyber offense to move from the world we’re in today — where it’s a fine, handcrafted capability that requires exquisite authorities to do anything… to a future where cyber is a capability like other weapons,” Darpa director Arati Prabhakar told reporters last month. “A military operator can design and deploy a cyber effect, know what it’s going to accomplish… and take an appropriate level of action.”