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Defense Department Partners With Industry for Signals Intelligence

December 1999
By Joan C. Marburger

Security agency works with commercial sector to produce next-generation systems.

The National Security Agency is spearheading a U.S. Defense Department effort to develop, with commercial assistance, joint tactical signals intelligence systems. The agency has formed a steering group to shape an architecture for generating standards around which industry will design and build the next generation of tactical signals intelligence systems.

A basic tenet of this architecture is to select standards that are widely accepted and proven by commercial use. The overall philosophy is to avoid using proprietary solutions when open U.S. and international commercial specifications are available and suitable. If existing commercial standards are not adequate to meet unique airborne signals intelligence domain requirements, the next choice is to use government standards, as in the case of the MIL-STD 461-D-EMI compatibility standard.

The joint airborne signals intelligence (SIGINT) architecture, or JASA, is an integral component of the Defense Department plan to satisfy current and future joint warfighter airborne SIGINT system requirements. JASA’s key characteristics include an open architecture; digitization close to the sensor front end; a high-bandwidth, digital local area network; interface standards that facilitate connectivity between various hardware implementations; and optimum use of commercial technology. Moreover, as a standards-based open architecture, JASA enhances interoperability between SIGINT systems and lays out a roadmap for migrating current systems to ensure coherent modernization.

A Defense Department policy supports JASA by requiring interoperability between existing and future SIGINT systems, connectivity between national and tactical systems, and modernization of existing airborne SIGINT systems to keep pace with emerging technologies. These core characteristics are achieved by designing systems to a common set of standards. The inaugural JASA standards handbook, version 1.0, was published in July 1996, and two evolutionary versions were published in 1997 and 1998.

The Defense Department has experienced many changes in the signals intelligence arena since the end of the Cold War. New threats and technical challenges as well as reduced budgets and increased operational needs for fielding joint systems led to major overhauls in Defense Department business processes. In September 1999, the Joint Tactical SIGINT Architecture (JTSA) steering group was chartered.

The group, consisting of military and intelligence agency stakeholders, oversees development of the tactical SIGINT architecture to achieve enhanced systems interoperability. The airborne SIGINT community, rooted in JASA, is a key player in these efforts and a pathfinder for the architecture and standardization activities.

Establishing the JTSA steering group is one initiative in a series of sweeping changes that began in June 1994, when the secretary of defense directed the Defense Department to decrease reliance on military-unique specifications and increase the use of commercial off-the-shelf technology and commercial standards in system development initiatives. This fundamental policy shift drove revolutionary changes in processes for developing and fielding joint airborne SIGINT systems for common use by all military services.

The new approach requires the development of a cohesive, interoperable airborne SIGINT architecture and associated technical standards that could leverage commercial technologies and rapidly respond to changing threat environments. Since JASA’s development in 1995, technical collaboration with industry has been a consistent JASA goal to help mature the architecture and maintain pace with technological changes.

The NSA tactical SIGINT program office leads the ongoing efforts of the JASA standards working group. This joint service and agency team was created to identify, document and promulgate airborne SIGINT standards in the JASA standards handbook. In January 1999, to facilitate this process, the assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence formally delegated the authority to approve and enforce tactical SIGINT standards to the NSA director. The handbook is cited in the Defense Department joint technical architecture as the mandate for airborne SIGINT systems standards. It also has become a contractually binding element of major airborne SIGINT systems acquisitions.

To capitalize on the reinvigorated spirit of cooperation between national and tactical SIGINT communities and to respond to intelligence community requests, NSA’s tactical SIGINT program office significantly broadened the scope of the JASA standards working group. Historically, this group focused predominately on documenting technical standards to guide airborne SIGINT system acquisition and development efforts. Minimal discussions of operational and system issues were included in the standards publications.

Feedback from senior to grass-roots levels clearly indicated the need for a more comprehensive depiction of JASA, including operational and system views. The JASA standards working group adopted the Defense Department mandated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) approach for describing and documenting architectures and began work in May 1999.

The team of service and agency representatives is currently researching and drafting JASA version 1.0. It anticipates publishing a more robust documentation of JASA, offering concordant operational, system and technical views of the architecture in May 2000. This triad of JASA views will offer pertinent, complementary details of the architecture, which in turn will provide the airborne SIGINT community with key information for planning and executing coherent system development and migration strategies.

The operational architecture view describes operational elements, assigned tasks and information flows within the airborne SIGINT community that are required to support the warfighter. This view will define the types of information exchanged, the frequency of the exchanges, the tasks and activities that are supported by those exchanges, and the nature of the information exchanges in sufficient detail to ascertain specific interoperability requirements. It will include products such as operational concept diagrams, command relationship charts, activity models, information exchange requirements, required capabilities matrices, and basic node connectivity models. It also is expected to specify conceptual paradigms and appropriate common reference models.

The JASA systems architecture view will capture information flows among JASA elements, the systems supporting that flow, and the communication systems that provide the interconnection. The primary purpose of this view is to enable or facilitate operational tasks and activities through the application of physical resources. For JASA, the systems view will show how multiple systems link and interoperate and will begin to describe the internal construction and operation of particular systems within the architecture.

The systems view associates physical resources and their performance attributes to the operational view and its requirements in accordance with the standards to be defined in the technical view. This view will include such products as systems overlays to basic node connectivity models, element/interface diagrams, performance parameter matrices, and evolution diagrams.

The JASA technical architecture view will contain services, configurations, standards and conventions to be implemented in the systems architecture view. It also is expected to specify standards and provide some technology forecasting information. It will be built on the JASA standards handbook.

The technical view provides technical systems implementation guidelines on which engineering specifications are based, common building blocks are established, and product lines are developed. A key principle of the technical view is that it is based on an association between the operational requirements and their supporting systems, enabling technologies and appropriate interoperability criteria. The primary product of the technical view will be a standards matrix as well as supporting annexes and appendices.

The Defense Department is encouraging industry participation in JASA evolution. Industry involvement dates back to June 1995 when undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology representatives convened a JASA industry day to promote dialog and technical collaboration between the Defense Department and industry. To further solidify ties with industry, AFCEA International is designated as the primary liaison between the JASA standards working group and industry.

Industry comment on candidate JASA standards has been an important step in their validation process, and a continued partnership with industry is deemed essential to leverage commercial technological advances into future airborne SIGINT standards and architectures. Moreover, officials are optimistic that industry will continue to engage in JASA’s growth as its standards working group reaches out to new members of the airborne SIGINT community during development of the triad of JASA architecture views. Equally important, mandating an open, nonproprietary architecture such as JASA is encouraging the efficient and cost-effective insertion of advancing technology into airborne SIGINT systems via commercial off-the-shelf implementations. As JASA stakeholders ponder airborne SIGINT fleet investment decisions, they will continue to develop technical partnerships with industry. The Defense Department will increasingly look to industry for recommendations on innovative solutions or alternatives to satisfy size, weight, power and performance requirements for new airborne SIGINT systems.

JASA facilitates the migration of current, predominately stovepiped airborne SIGINT systems to an interoperable architecture that is capable of rapid reconfiguration to meet joint warfighter interoperability requirements. To achieve a viable JASA, the Defense Department will continue to develop and field open architecture airborne SIGINT systems through an enhanced industry partnership.


Joan C. Marburger is chairperson of the JASA standards working group in the Tactical SIGINT Program Office at NSA.