CYBERCOM, DARPA pen agreement to speed up advanced cyberwarfare research

CYBERCOM, DARPA pen agreement to speed up advanced cyberwarfare research

U.S. Cyber Command and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency signed a binding memorandum this month that carves out pathways needed to expedite research and development of advanced cyberware technologies in the Department of Defense.

The agreement, announced by the two Pentagon agencies this week, establishes budgets, roles and governance structures needed to swiftly move cyber technologies “from the laboratory to the cyber battlefield,” they said.

The move centers DARPA—the research giant focused on advanced technology for U.S. military capabilities—as the frontrunner entity that provides projects to be loaded into CYBERCOM’s software suite. The memorandum follows the 2022 establishment of Constellation, the agreement’s cornerstone pilot program focused on transmitting advanced hacking capabilities to American cyberspace combatants.

Under the agreement, R&D programs would be chosen by DARPA and executed by the Orion Consortium, a joint group that includes DARPA contributors and CYBERCOM engineers.

“We’re talking about the rapid expansion of the art of the possible by partnering directly with the people persistently pushing the technological beyond its limits, conversely informing and challenging those advancements through an operational lens to maximize the balance between the art and science of cyber in support of national security,” said CYBERCOM’s deputy commander Lt. Gen. William Hartman during a recent keynote address at RSA Conference in San Francisco.

CYBERCOM is one of several unified combatant commands that combines staff across multiple service branches. It deployed cyber warriors in “hunt forward” missions 22 times to 17 countries in 2023 to disable cyber threats across global networks, according to April testimony delivered to a Senate panel by command leader Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh.

At just under 14 years old, the command was established following a 2008 DOD malware infestation linked to Russian operatives that originated on a USB drive, resulting in a 14-month cleanup operation dubbed Buckshot Yankee.

Since then, CYBERCOM has increasingly helped the U.S. mesh cyber capabilities with traditional military operations, as part of a broader effort to augment U.S. digital armaments and surveillance capabilities. To date, the entity has some 5,000 personnel across more than 130 teams, according to a blog post.

The Pentagon recently signaled willingness to offensively disrupt rivals in cyberspace. In a strategy released last year, it labeled China and Russia as top digital adversaries and vowed to go after cybercriminals or other groups that threaten U.S. interests.

“Continuous delivery of robust [science and technology] cyber capabilities requires a pipeline model that mitigates research risk and creates necessary connections between end users and research teams,” said Kathleen Fisher, DARPA’s Information Innovation Office director, said in a press release on the agreement. “You can be on the cutting edge of technology development by participating in DARPA-funded efforts, many of which ultimately help shape and provide the technologies necessary for national security.”

CYBERCOM already possesses sophisticated hacking capabilities designed to defend national interests and conduct cyber operations. It has a range of electronic warfare capabilities and combat mission teams, as well as defensive groups focused on shielding critical infrastructure and democratic processes like elections.

The collaboration has the potential to further advance the command’s aptitude. One pilot project linked to the Constellation agreement resulted in a prototype in just six months, the two groups said without providing further information on the nature or scope of the research. It featured “initial capabilities greatly exceeding its predecessor and starting a groundbreaking pathway for evolutions and integrations planned for the remaining two and half years of the project,” they added.

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