The NSA is seeking to build a more cohesive open architecture approach with its partners as it tries to broaden interoperability and increase protocol processing for new capabilities, according to the agency’s deputy chief of Cross Access Capabilities (CAC).

Craig McCarter, deputy chief of NSA CAC efforts, pointed to increasing the scope for new capabilities and potentially forming a board of representatives with defense and intelligence partners as priorities for the NSA as it continues to stake its place as an open architecture leader.

NSA's Deputy Chief of Cross Access Capabilities delivers a keynote address at Defense Daily's Open Architecture Summit. Photo: Matthew Beinart.
NSA’s Deputy Chief of Cross Access Capabilities delivers a keynote address at Defense Daily’s Open Architecture Summit. Photo: Matthew Beinart.

“We have to promote the unity of effort. That is the imperative for my organization,” said McCarter on Thursday at Defense Daily’s Open Architecture Summit. “We’re at the center of this architecture movement and we have the responsibility to lead the community, not just to produce some good things ourselves.”

The NSA, and McCarter’s department specifically, have set their open architecture focus on capabilities related to software-defined radios (SDRs), setting geo-location standards and reaching tactical data formats.For SDRs, the NSA is hoping to look at standard form factors and open sources factors to build its capabilities.

“When I say capabilities right now, I’m thinking of things like there’s a new waveform that we find that’s out there that’s an adversarial radio. So someone develops a protocol process for that. Well, you know, if you can take that and drop that into everybody’s system, you can spread the capability really quickly,” said McCarter. “If you can’t drop that processing capability into everybody’s system, then everybody’s got to develop the same protocol processing over and over again.”

The CAC department’s goal is build in protocol processing so when partners receive capabilities, they won’t need to spend time rebuilding systems from the ground up each time.

To deal with broader involvement in capabilities, McCarter pointed to the importance of security and cyber resiliency to open architecture efforts.

“If you think you can be completely isolated, I feel like those days are more over than we expect. You have to be able to work with data that comes from places that aren’t trusted. And so you have to bake in security right from the beginning,” said McCarter.

Leading the discussion on open architecture, to build its own tools and broaden the capabilities of its partners, is a prime responsibility for the NSA, according to McCarter.

“We need to lead the community. If no one else is leading the architecture, absolutely the NSA should be right in the middle of that. We should be taking on whatever it takes to make sure that we’re being the center of gravity for the tactical SIGINT (signals intelligence) community,” said McCarter.

A first step to building on open architecture efforts is to avoid arguing on certain standards and agree to scale up the context in order to meet the needs of all partners involved.

McCarter floated the possibility of establishing a board with representatives from the Armed Services, the combatant commands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the under secretary of defense for Intelligence, and appropriate federal agencies to push discourse on open architecture.

To grow interoperability with new capabilities, the NSA needs the organizations it works with to continue pulling resources together to maximize architecture efforts. McCarter cited greater DoD guidance as an important step for increased interoperability.

“For me the imperative is that we have to open up our architectures to the point where we can truly work together … where we can truly, in [the NSA’s] case, trade waveforms across the agencies and across the services, and that we’re not isolating ourselves in our development of new technologies,” said McCarter. “It’s truly got to be a national and international coalition of the willing to do this.”