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Pentagon's Plan X: how it could change cyberwarfare

The Pentagon has always been secretive about its desire and ability to carry out offensive cyberwarfare. Now, Plan X makes it clear that offensive cyberattacks will be in the Pentagon playbook.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / October 12, 2012

In a speech to business leaders in New York City on Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta became the first US official to publicly confirm that Iranian hackers, likely supported by the Tehran government, were responsible for recent cyberattacks against oil and gas companies in the Persian Gulf and that they appeared to be in retaliation for the latest round of U.S. sanctions against the country. He is shown here, in a file photo, speaking to a news conference on Sept 27 in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File

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The same Pentagon futurologists who helped create the Internet are about to begin a new era of cyberwarfare.

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For years, the Pentagon has been open and adamant about the nation's need to defend itself against cyberattack, but its ability and desire to attack enemies with cyberweapons has been cloaked in mystery.

Next week, however, the Pentagon's Defense Advance Research Products Agency (DARPA) will launch Plan X – an effort to improve the offensive cyberwarfare capabilities “needed to dominate the cyber battlespace,” according to an announcement for the workshop.

Though the program will be closed to the press, the relatively public message is a first for the Pentagon. For one, it shows that the Pentagon is now essentially treating its preparations for cyberwar the same way it treats its preparations for any potential conventional war. Just as it takes bids from aerospace companies to develop new jet fighters or helicopters, Plan X will look at bids from groups that can help it plan for cyberwarfare and expand technologies.

Moreover, it opens a window into the highly secretive world of offensive cyberwarfare. No longer is it unclear whether the US is in the business of planning Stuxnet-style cyberattacks. Plan X indicates that such capabilities – which experts say could range from taking out electrical grids to scrambling computer networks in top-secret facilities to causing the pacemaker implanted in an enemy official to go haywire – will be an explicit part of the military playbook.

“If we can have a robust public discussion of nuclear weapons why not a robust discussion of cyberstrategy?” says Jim Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Up until now, cyber has been kind of ad hoc. What they’re doing now is saying that this is going to be a normal part of US military operations.”

The US is already engaged in offensive cyberwar. Media reports claim that the US helped develop and deploy the Stuxnet digital worm, which inflicted serious harm on Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

In his most wide-ranging speech to date on cyber warfare Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted at the need for increased offensive capabilities, warning that America “won’t succeed in preventing a cyber attack through improved defenses alone.” 

“If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us, to defend this nation when directed by the president,” Mr. Panetta said. “For these kinds of scenarios, the department has developed the capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace.”

But the lack of discussion surrounding offensive cyber capabilities – and a clear US military plan for pursuing them – has been a significant roadblock for US military forces interested in honing those skills, says retired Col. Joe Adams, a former West Point professor who coached the military academy’s cyber team.

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