Cyber Defense

DARPA tasks BAE with workaround to secure the power grid in event of massive attack

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and BAE Systems are working to forge alternative communication networks that would come into use in case of a cyberattack on the U.S. electrical power grid.

Although the aim is to ensure safe connectivity among all of the civilian nodes which depend upon the power grid, the program is particularly focused on securing defense networks and operational combat activities.

The program, called Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS), consists of a variety of technical capabilities. These include an ability to recognize or provide early warning of impending attacks, map conventional and industrial control systems networks, ad hoc network formation and analysis of control systems, a DARPA statement said.

“DARPA is interested, specifically, in early warning of impending attacks, situation awareness, network isolation and threat characterization in response to a widespread and persistent cyberattack on the power grid and its dependent systems,” said DARPA program manager John Everett. 

The goal of the new protective technology is to detect and disconnect unauthorized internal and external users from local networks within minutes, and create a robust, hybrid network of data links secured by multiple layers of encryption and user authentication. The systems rely on advances in network traffic control and analysis to establish and maintain emergency communications. It also quickly isolates the attacked system and moves to an alternative Secure Emergency Network, or SEN.

“The purpose for this program is to provide a technology that quickly isolates both the enterprise IP network and the power infrastructure networks to disrupt malicious cyberattacks,” said Victor Firoiu, senior principal engineer and manager of Communications and Networking at BAE Systems.

The SEN can take the form of wireless internet technology, radio communications or satellite systems to ensure the grid continues to function if under attack, developers explained.  

Coordination essential to critical operational traffic necessary to restart and then facilitate the stable operation of the power grid is managed by the SEN.

“It’s an indirect network control, which is a method of connecting and diverting traffic from the normal path,” Firoiu said. “We can support a seamless switch-over and transport of critical communication.”

 The SEN is designed to function essentially as a wireless network without an infrastructure that ensures end-to-end communication between power grid nodes to provide transport of critical real time communication within the affected area, Firoiu explained.

Once activated, BAE Systems’ technology detects and disconnects unauthorized internal and external users from local networks within minutes. It is designed to create a robust, hybrid network of data links secured by multiple layers of encryption and user authentication, BAE explained.

Coordination of a SEN needs to be completed according to a sequential process, enabling relevant portions of the grid to connect with one another so a secure network can stand up, BAE officials said.

Threat analysis is a key element of the initiative because the RADIC effort seeks to anticipate and thwart both current and future attacks.

The project is a 3-phase, 4-year program that ends in June 2020.  The first two phases are focused on research and development of technologies, and the last phase is focused on technology transition. 

Potential recipients of technology transition include electric grid operators, DOD systems and the Department of Homeland Security, developers said.

BAE Systems is working with Applied Communication Sciences, a Vencore Labs Company; Electric Power Research Institute; Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Columbia University

for its part in the RADIC program.


About the Author

Kris Osborn is a former editor of Defense Systems.

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