DISA discloses secret NSA pact with Sprint
- By Bob Brewin
- Mar 09, 1997
The Defense Information Systems Agency late last month publicly acknowledged a contract awarded to Sprint last fall for a classified global telecommunications network designed primarily to serve the super-secret National Security Agency according to industry analysts.
Sources said last week that Sprint won the contract for the Defense Information Systems Network-Classified (DISN-C) in a price-based shootout with AT&T and MCI. Though the five-year contract for what one source described as "very large pipes" carried a ceiling around $200 million another source estimated Sprint "low-balled it down [to] the $70 million range. This is a deal considering the network calls for Sonet service at speeds of OC-3 [155 megabit/sec] and higher."
Sprint refused to discuss the contract citing security requirements.
DISA first disclosed the existence of DISN-C publicly during a briefing at the annual Tele-Strategies Inc. Federal Telecom-munications Conference in McLean Va. Except for acknowledging the existence of the network DISA declined to provide details.
One of the most innovative uses of DISN-C is to move "raw radio frequency" data plucked from the airwaves by remote NSA antenna sites directly to key users according to sources. This dovetails with post-Persian Gulf War requirements that agencies such as NSA find better ways to deliver timely information to the warfighting joint commands.
According to one knowledgeable source "NSA uses DISN-C to deliver that raw data to the users who then perform their own processing." This allows users not remote analysts at Fort Meade Md. to better manage signals intelligence another source said.
Sources familiar with the contract said DISN-C rides Sprint's worldwide commercial network. Security of the NSA traffic is ensured by the use of bulk end-to-end encryption devices according to John Pescatore an analyst at Trusted Information Systems.
DISA had to develop DISN-C at a good price an industry source said "or the NSA would have run its own procurement. The agency particularly did not like the 3 percent override DISA charges and so they had to demonstrate real cost savings up front."
NSA and its partner agencies in the services such as the Army Security Agency and the Naval Security Group operate listening posts worldwide. Analysts said DISN-C has extensive international connectivity to ship data from those posts back to powerful computer processors at NSA's Fort Meade headquarters.
From there NSA uses DISN-C to distribute processed data to high-level users throughout the Washington D.C. area with MFS Inc. providing the majority of these wide-area network circuits to Sprint for DISN-C.
Migration Is Toward ATM
DISN-C uses conventional switching but sources said the network has a migration path to Asynchronous Transfer Mode switching suitable for managing varying bandwidth needs. The move to ATM sources said depends upon the fielding of NSA's Fastlane ATM encryption device in sufficient quantities to support the network.
Federal Computer Week learned that DISA has considered moving the NSA traffic off the separate classified network and onto the DOD-wide DISN worldwide telecommunications contract held by AT&T. One industry source called such a move "logical since DISA and the users would benefit from economies of scale. But I bet NSA will strongly resist any move towards bundling their traffic with everyone else.