By Mr. Bill Roche (Army Cyber Command)February 15, 2017
A mix of extensive research and development and innovative hands-on testing and acquisition processes are set to deliver technology to the Army later this year that streamlines mission command for cyberspace operations.
The system, called Plan-X, helps move the cyber domain further away from the exclusive realm of network operators. Plan-X gives commanders a way to see and respond to key cyber terrain in the same way they react to actions on the physical battlefield, and enables synchronizing cyber effects with key related warfighting functions such as intelligence, signal, information operations and electronic warfare.
The system has been under development at DoD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under a four-year, $120 million program. Later this year DARPA will hand it over to the Army's Program Executive Office Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS) -- a major step closer to putting it into action on the battlefield.
The transition of Plan-X is a significant milestone that signifies that the system is showing promise in addressing the Army's need for a battle command system for cyberspace operations, said Lt. Col. John Bushman, deputy chief of fires for U.S. Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER).
"In a way, the 'DARPA hard' hypothesis of the program was to see if a system could be built to abstract and interact with cyberspace in such a way that we could apply the military science of maneuver-centric warfare to cyber operations -- using computer science to enable the application of military science," Bushman said.
The "highly collaborative" system leverages standardized icons long familiar to battlefield planning, the colonel explained, to provide a Common Operating Picture of the information environment that gives commanders, planners, analysts and cyber operators the ability to communicate in real time to address cyber requirements.
"Plan-X is a battle command system for cyberspace operations which possesses technology that firmly places our forces at significant advantage in cyberspace," he said.
The system brings the concepts of maneuver warfare and the Military Decision-Making Process to the cyber battlefield, said DARPA Program Manager Frank Pound. By using visuals familiar to commanders and automating "burdensome or complex tasks" by their effects -- for example, a "Netstat" app quickly provides network defenders with statistics on hosts in their battlespace -- Plan-X provides a way to better see cyber terrain and understand how an enemy is infiltrating friendly networks and respond to those attacks. Pound said his team collaborated with experts from the Army's Training and Doctrine Command during the development process to help incorporate Army doctrine into Plan-X and vice-versa.
A vital ingredient of ensuring that Plan-X will provide commanders with the tools they need to defend and attack in cyberspace has been involving cyber operators "early and often" in the development process, Pound said. That involvement included participation in military exercises, including Cyber Guard and Cyber Flag, to test its viability and to place it in the hands of Cyber Protection Team (CPT) members to fight through exercise scenarios as both friendly and enemy forces. Future plans include taking the system to an exercise and giving CPTs "full use to perform operations from mission management all the way to execution -- rehearsal, orders receipt, the whole nine yards," he said. Operator involvement has also included conducting "surge weeks" with ARCYBER experts and the Army Cyber Protection Brigade (CPB) to further put the system to the test in the hands of those who will use it.
Bushman and Pound agreed that feedback from exercises and surge weeks has been invaluable to the development process, and has helped iron out bugs and resulted in hundreds of requests to build more features into the system.
"At the end of the day for commanders and units, the expectation is that Plan-X enables battlespace awareness and facilitates planning, war gaming, deployment and execution of cyber operations at significant scale," Bushman said. "The Plan-X surge weeks at Fort Gordon with the CPB have furnished tremendous feedback to the program. The feature requests from operators, analysts, planners and team leaders are shaping the system significantly."
"The feedback (from operators) is priceless," Pound added. "You can't get exposed to those operational sort of realities by having everything kind of sequestered off in a lab. It doesn't work well, because what you'll end up doing is you'll spend a year developing something you think is really neat and useful, only to go to an exercise and it all falls over because you completely missed some key aspect of what that exercise stresses."
To set DARPA up for "very agile, fast-moving research," Pound said, the Plan-X team got innovative, adopting a "development operations" process used by the gaming community to enable progress and refinement while eliminating product down time. It's an approach that allows developers to immediately address issues and get solutions to operators very quickly.
"Dev ops" has informed the software development roadmap, Bushman said, enabling rapid refinements to components such as Plan-X's Common Operating Picture, battle tracking, force management, and threat overlays.
Plan-X is scheduled to transition to PEO-EIS's Project Manager Installation Information Infrastructure -- Communications and Capabilities in September. The move, which will take the system from the realm of prototypes to an official program, is being looked at by acquisition officials such as the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics and Technology) and the Army Rapid Capabilities Office as a potential model for emerging technologies, a new way to more rapidly get needed systems into the hands of users and into battle.
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