With a cyber budget of $1.54 billion from 2013 to 2017, the agency will focus increasingly on cyber-offense to meet military needs, officials say.
DARPA’s research is designed to foster long-shot successes. In addition to helping create the Internet, the agency’s work gave rise to stealth jet technology and portable global-positioning devices.
“Even if 90 percent of their ideas don’t pan out,” said Martin Libicki, a cyberwar expert at Rand Corp., “the 10 percent that are worthwhile more than pay back the difference.”
A digital battlefield map, as DARPA envisions it, would plot nodes on the Internet, drawing from a variety of sources and changing as cyberspace changes.
“In a split microsecond you could have a completely different flow of information and set of nodes,” Gabriel said. “The challenge and the opportunity is to create a capability where you’re always getting a rapid, high-order look of what the Internet looks like — of what the cyberspace looks like at any one point in time.”
The ideal map would show network connections, analyze how much capacity a particular route has for carrying a cyberweapon and suggest alternative routes according to traffic flows, among other things.
The goal would be a visual representation of cyberspace that could help commanders make decisions on what to attack and how, while seeing any attacks coming from an enemy.
Achieving this will require an enormous amount of upfront intelligence work, experts say.
Michael V. Hayden, a former NSA director and a former CIA director, said he can imagine a map with red dots representing enemy computers and blue dots representing American ones.
When the enemy upgrades his operating system, the red dots would blink yellow, meaning the target is out of reach until cyber operators can determine what the new operating system is.
“I can picture that,” Hayden said. “But this really is bigger than all outdoors.”
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.
Daniel Kuehl, an information warfare professor at the National Defense University’s iCollege, 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 cyberwarrior can disrupt a computer system controlling an enemy’s electric power, the system theoretically can also be turned back on, minimizing the impact on civilians.
But retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, who as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until August pushed to develop military cyber-offense 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. ”