A New Era in Air Defense

By Karina Wright

MITRE was chief systems engineer for the U.S. Air Force's Airborne Warning and Control System from the program’s early days and across major world events. Here’s a look at how AWACS advanced air defense and our role keeping the aircraft threat-ready.

The world—and the battlefield—looked very different when the now-iconic E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft took its first prototype flight in 1973. Cars lined up at gas stations during the oil crisis. U.S. combat troops withdrew from Vietnam and the Cold War simmered. Advances in intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities raised the specter of nuclear war.

Enter the U.S. Air Force’s Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft—the first aircraft capable of detecting and distinguishing threats in the airspace at long range from high and low altitudes above any type of terrain. MITRE’s pioneering technical contributions during many years as the program’s chief engineer helped AWACS become a vital defensive resource for the U.S. and our allies over the next 50+ years.

“AWACS as it was originally envisioned was all about defending the U.S. mainland,” says MITRE’s Darryl Washington, outcome lead, airborne battle management command and control. “Over time, its detection capabilities also proved invaluable to operations in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations.”

NATO, the U.K., France, Saudi Arabia, and Japan acquired AWACS for their missions.

Onboard AWACS E-3A

Standing inside an AWACS E-3A aircraft at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts, 1973: (left to right) MITRE’s Senior Vice President, Bedford Operations John F. Jacobs; Brigadier General Robert L. Edge; Electronic Systems Division Commander Major General Albert R. Shiely Jr.; MITRE’s President and CEO Bob Everett; and Brigadier General Kendall Russell. (Photo courtesy of MITRE Corporate Records and Archives.)

There’s no question AWACS was a game-changer for U.S. forces, meeting a Cold War-era need and beyond. The aircraft became synonymous with American technological and military superiority. (See A Moment in Time: Airborne Warning and Control System [AWACS] 1973 HD.) 

After many upgrades to subsystems to keep pace with changing battlespace demands, the Air Force in 2022 initiated acquisition on the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail as AWACS’ successor. 

While MITRE’s formal AWACS support ended in 2023, today we’re collaborating with the Air Force and industry to apply lessons learned to ensure the future capability has the depth and breadth of functionality to meet emerging threats. While follow-on capabilities are readied, an AWACS fleet continues to keep watch in the airspace. 

Decades of work on AWACS advanced our deep expertise in systems engineering, aerospace, avionics, and defense technologies—and continues to inform our Department of Defense-sponsored National Security Engineering Center and Federal Aviation Administration-sponsored Center for Advanced Aviation System Development capabilities.

As we look ahead, it’s also worth a look back at AWACS’ breakthrough contributions to continental air defense and MITRE’s role in keeping the aircraft at-the-ready. 

A Cutting-Edge Design

AWACS has a distinctive mushroom-shaped “radome” (rotating radar dome) atop the fuselage. The mobile battle management command and control system, or BMC2, sits at the back of the aircraft. Combined, the capabilities can identify, target, and intercept enemy aircraft—and share real-time intelligence with allies. 

This powerful, wide-view aperture system has clutter rejection abilities, meaning it can filter extraneous signals and noise and find the proverbial needle in the haystack. For instance, AWACS radar can detect aircraft hidden behind mountains or other structures, a decisive battlespace advantage. (See an Associated Press video taken aboard an E-3 aircraft.) AWACS technology also expedites humanitarian assistance and search and rescue operations. 

Washington explains that elevating the search radar and sensors on an airborne platform, which MITRE began experimenting with in the 1960s, expanded the view of the battlespace far beyond a ground-based position limited to line of sight. And thanks to microprocessors, the system was light weight relative to its power and abilities.

“Having a wide-area surveillance capability coupled with an onsite battle management system to make decisions in the field became an incredible Swiss Army Knife that could be used in many scenarios,” he says.

Proving AWACS’ Operational Value

Confidence in AWACS wasn’t always a given. Early on, the military, Congress, and NATO were skeptical of the aircraft’s abilities. 

MITRE engineers demonstrated AWACS’ impressive range of functions, first in 1972 at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., then in Europe in 1973. Central to the demonstrations was our prototype command and control data link called Seek Bus, which later became the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, or JTIDS.

Leading up to a demonstration for General David C. Jones, then commander in chief of U.S. Air Forces Europe, our engineers built and installed Seek Bus transmitters and terminals at test locations across Europe. The team, working furiously over three months, integrated the new technology and interfaced the terminals with existing NATO technology, which was far from standardized. 

The European demonstrations were a major success. In one of the tests, observers at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base could see the airspace of an AWACS on station above the Adriatic Sea. Simultaneously, AWACS relayed the tracking data to the command-and-control centers tied together by Seek Bus. (See MITRE Moments: Demonstrating AWACS to Skeptical Commanders.)

“Over the years, AWACS was deployed to many places to help quickly understand the air situation and guide forces,” adds Washington.

And for good reason. Mark Simpson, a MITRE principal systems architect and former AWACS sensor operator, says the aircraft’s role “in the aggregate is to be the quarterback for an air war.”

Recalibrating to Stay Ahead of Threats

As warfighter needs changed over the years, MITRE contributed to AWACS sensor enhancements, communications upgrades via satellite, and more. For instance, we were instrumental in evolving JTIDS into Link 16, which today provides a common situational awareness picture to joint and coalition forces.

“We’re always tuning into what the user says they need based on current operations or threats,” Washington says. “The biggest program, which recently finished installation, was the complete upgrade of what I call the battle management node.” 

That is, ensuring all AWACS’ displays take in sensor information and correlate it with what’s off-board and present an operational air picture to the operators.

“All of that intelligence identifies friend or foe and gives operators the threat posture of the enemy. Both in the air and on the ground with surface-to-air missile sites,” Simpson says.

In 2015, MITRE was deeply involved with a capabilities-based assessment, when AWACS had been fielded almost 40 years. With USAF’s Air Combat Command, the program office, and the Advanced Analysis office at Hanscom AFB, we assessed the changing battle landscape.

“Over time, threats became faster, smaller, and more lethal, doing damage at longer distances. It's a constant cat and mouse game. The skill base we have at MITRE—from understanding interoperability to requirements—is directly applicable to building the next generation of capabilities,” Washington adds. 

Of course, it’s a huge undertaking to equip a successor to assume E-3 AWACS capabilities. 

“BMC2 systems take a long time to develop,” says MITRE’s Marie Francesca, managing director, air operations. “Modifying already existing capabilities, whether from AWACS, Wedgetail, or other systems, can shorten the development and production timelines, depending on what needs to be changed.” 

The E-7 plan, Francesca explains, “is to be conducted under a rapid acquisition to get it in the field as fast as possible, called speed-to-ramp.”

The ultimate goal is to bolster operators’ ability “to do their mission and make complex decisions at a very high rate of speed,” Simpson says.  

MITRE is honored to have played a significant part in AWACS’ longstanding impact. We look forward to ongoing collaboration with USAF and the AWACS stakeholder community to prepare the next generation BMC2 system to contribute to battlespace protection for the joint force, our nation, our warfighters, and coalition partners.

Lindsay Sprechman, MITRE collection management archivist, contributed to this story. 

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