U.S. Military Openly Admits to Conducting Cyberwarfare

Destroy, deny, degrade, disrupt, deceive, corrupt, or usurp the adversaries.

By NOAH SHACHTMAN | WIRED.com | AUGUST 29, 2012

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the U.S. military wouldn’t even whisper about its plans to hack into opponents’ networks. Now America’s armed forces can’t stop talking about it.

The latest example comes from the U.S. Air Force, which last week announced its interest in methods “to destroy, deny, degrade, disrupt, deceive, corrupt, or usurp the adversaries [sic] ability to use the cyberspace domain for his advantage.” But that’s only one item in a long list of “Cyberspace Warfare Operations Capabilities” that the Air Force would like to possess. The service, in its request for proposals, also asked for the “ability to control cyberspace effects at specified times and places,” as well as the “denial of service on cyberspace resources, current/future operating systems, and network devices.”

The Air Force says it will spend $10 million on the effort, mostly for short programs of three to 12 months; the service wants its Trojans and worms available, ASAP. And they should be available to both the top brass and to the “operational commander,” too. In other words, cyber strikes shouldn’t just be the prerogative of the president, to be launched at only the most strategically important moments. Malware should be a standard component of a local general’s toolkit.

These digital weapons could even be deployed before a battle begins. The Air Force notes that it would like to deploy “technologies/capabilities” that leave “the adversary entering conflicts in a degraded state.”

Such an open discussion — even one so vague — might seem like a bit of a surprise, considering the Obama administration is actively investigating leaks to the press about America’s online espionage campaign against Iran. The Senate Intelligence Committee considered the disclosure so dangerous, it passed a controversial bill last month that creates new punishments for leakers of classified information.

But this isn’t 2007, when the Pentagon was still insisting that it had a “defensive mindset” in cyberspace. New pieces of military-grade malware — apparently linked to the broader U.S. cyberspying push — are being discovered constantly on Middle Eastern networks. Besides, the Air Force is hardly alone in talking about its desire for — and use of — network attacks. They are becoming a regular part of the military conversation — so normal, in fact, that generals are even beginning to talk about their troops’ wartime hacking.

 Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, who led coalition forces in southwestern Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, bragged at a technology conference last week that his troops had broken into militants’ communications. “I can tell you that as a commander in Afghanistan in the year 2010, I was able to use my cyber operations against my adversary with great impact,” Mills said. “I was able to get inside his nets, infect his command-and-control, and in fact defend myself against his almost constant incursions to get inside my wire, to affect my operations.”

Mills added that the Marines had recently put together a company of Marines, stationed at the headquarters of the National Security Agency, to give the Corps “an offensive capability.” A second company “will be designed to increase the availability of intelligence analysts, intelligence collectors and offensive cyber operations and place them in the appropriate unit, at the appropriate time, at the appropriate place, so that forward deployed commander in the heat of combat has full access to the cyber domain.”

The day before Mills’ talk, the Pentagon’s leading research division announced a new, $110 million program to help warplanners assemble and launch online strikes in a hurry and make cyber attacks a more routine part of U.S. military operations. The effort, dubbed “Plan X” by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, isn’t supposed to formally get underway until Sept. 20. But Darpa has already awarded a no-bid, $600,000 contract to the Washington-area cybersecurity firm Invincea to start work on “Plan X.”

Invincea wasn’t immediately able to comment on the “Digital Battlefield Understanding Study and proof-of-concept demonstration” that it intends to produce for Darpa. But a military document justifying Invincea’s sole-source contract notes that the company submitted an “unsolicited proposal” for the project on June 26. Less than a month later, it was approved. “Invincea is the only source who possesses the particular commercial software and knowledge necessary to rapidly address technical insights in modeling a cyber battlespace and optimizing digital battle plans,” the document notes.

Invincea isn’t the only military contractor working on the tools of cyber war, however. These days, the build-up of America’s online arsenal has become the subject of all sorts of open talk and deal-making.

Cyberwar 2.0: DARPA’s Plan X to Attack the Web

By NOAH SHACHTMAN | WIRED | AUGUST 24, 2012

The Pentagon’s top research arm is unveiling a new, classified cyberwarfare project. But it’s not about building the next Stuxnet, Darpa swears. Instead, the just-introduced “Plan X” is designed to make online strikes a more routine part of U.S. military operations. That will make the son of Stuxnet easier to pull off — to, as Darpa puts it, “dominate the cyber battlespace.”

Darpa spent years backing research that could shore up the nation’s cyberdefenses. “Plan X” is part of a growing and fairly recent push into offensive online operations by the Pentagon agency largely responsible for the internet’s creation. In recent months, everyone from the director of Darpa on down has pushed the need to improve — and normalize — America’s ability to unleash cyberattacks against its foes.

That means building tools to help warplanners assemble and launch online strikes in a hurry. It means, under Plan X, figuring out ways to assess the damage caused by a new piece of friendly military malware before it’s unleashed. And it means putting together a sort of digital battlefield map that allows the generals to watch the fighting unfold, as former Darpa acting director Ken Gabriel told the Washington Post: “a rapid, high-order look of what the Internet looks like — of what the cyberspace looks like at any one point in time.”

It’s not quite the same as building the weapons themselves, as Darpa notes in its introduction to the five-year, $100 million effort, issued on Monday: “The Plan X program is explicitly not funding research and development efforts in vulnerability analysis or cyberweapon generation.” (Emphasis in the original.)

But it is certainly a complementary campaign. A classified kick-off meeting for interested researchers in scheduled for Sept. 20.

The American defense and intelligence establishment has been reluctant at times to authorize network attacks, for fear that their effects could spread far beyond the target computers. On the eve of the Iraq invasion of 2003, for instance, the Bush administration made plans for a massive online strike on Baghdad’s financial system before discarding the idea out of collateral damage concerns.

It’s not the only factor holding back such operations. U.S. military chiefs like National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander have publicly expressed concern that America may not be able to properly respond to a national-level attack unless they’re given pre-defined battle plans and “standing rules of engagement” that would allow them to launch a counterstrike “at net speed.” Waiting more than a few moments might hurt the American ability to respond at all, these officers say.

“Plan X” aims to solve both problems simultaneously, by automatically constructing mission plans that are as easy to execute as “the auto-pilot function in modern aircraft,” but contain “formal methods to provably quantify the potential battle damage from each synthesized mission plan.”

Then, once the plan is launched, Darpa would like to have machines running on operating systems that can withstand the rigors of a full-blown online conflict: “hardened ‘battle units’ that can perform cyberwarfare functions such as battle damage monitoring, communication relay, weapon deployment, and adaptive defense.”

The ability to operate in dangerous areas, pull potential missions off-the-shelf, and assess the impact of attacks — these are all commonplace for air, sea, and land forces today. The goal of Plan X is to give network-warfare troops the same tools. “To get it to the point where it’s a part of routine military operations,” explains Jim Lewis, a long-time analyst of online operations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Of course, many critics of U.S. policy believe the deployment of cyberweapons is already too routine. America’s online espionage campaign against Iran has been deeply controversial, both at home and abroad. The Russian government and its allies believe that cyberweapons ought to be banned by international treaty. Here in the U.S., there’s a fear that, by unleashing Stuxnet and other military-grade malware, the Obama administration legitimized such attacks as a tool of statecraft — and invited other nations to strike our fragile infrastructure.

The Darpa effort is being lead, fittingly, by a former hacker and defense contractor. Daniel Roelker helped start the intrusion detection company Sourcefire and the DC Black Ops unit of Raytheon SI Government Solutions. In a November 2011 presentation (.pdf), Roelker decried the current, “hacker vs. hacker” approach to online combat. It doesn’t scale well — there are only so many technically skilled people — and it’s limited in how fast it can be executed. “We don’t win wars by out-hiring an adversary, we win through technology,” he added.

Instead, Roelker continued, the U.S. needs a suite of tools to analyze the network, automate the execution of cyberattacks, and be sure of the results. At the time, he called these the “Pillars of Foundational Cyberwarfare.” Now, it’s simply known as Plan X.