Our History

Our History

A Brief History of MITRE

The MITRE Corporation was chartered in 1958 as a private, not-for-profit company to provide engineering and technical guidance for the federal government. Since then, MITRE has operated at the intersection of advanced technology and vital national concerns. We've grown to serve a variety of government agencies at the highest levels through the operation of federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs).

SAGE operator using a light gun
SAGE operator using a light gun

The company's initial focus was on the continental air defense project called the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE). SAGE relied on the first digital computers to link radar stations, weapons systems, and military decision makers in near real time.

SAGE became operational in 1963. It spawned numerous innovations in computing, software, information displays, communications, program management, and systems engineering. To name a few: the National Airspace System, Airborne Warning and Communications Systems (AWACS), Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), and Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS).

(Video) This video examines MITRE's earliest years, from its important involvement in the creation of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) to the reasons behind establishing a not-for-profit company to fulfill this important role.

The Origins of a New Company

MITRE's roots began in the computer laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during World War II. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, MIT's scientists developed the first large-scale digital computer, dubbed Whirlwind I. A group of engineers working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory's Division 6 continued to expand its capabilities.

Joint STARS display
Joint STARS display

When the Air Force needed a framework for an advanced air-defense system, it chose Whirlwind I. Division 6 then designed Whirlwind II, a machine that would embody lessons from the first machine. They chose IBM to build the computer that would power SAGE as it moved from R&D into an operational phase.

MIT administrators decided this stage of the work called for a private, not-for-profit corporation to handle the transition. It would become the Air Force’s center of technical guidance for SAGE and its future development. The company would have no commercial conflicts of interest to influence its advice and assistance.

On July 17, 1958, the new company opened. The core of MITRE's executive staff came from Lincoln’s Division 6, with Robert Everett as the company's technical director and his associate John Jacobs as deputy technical director. H. Rowan Gaither, who was also the chairman of the RAND Corporation and the Ford Foundation, became our first Board of Trustees chairman.

(Video) In 1960, a revolution in military affairs was brewing—the modernization of Air Force command and control. Over an intense six months, MITRE managed a multi-faceted analysis that came to be known as the Winter Study. This video examines the challenges facing the team and the results of that groundbreaking report.

Expanding Roles Across the Defense, Aviation, and Intelligence Spheres

In 1959, the newly formed Federal Aviation Agency (now Administration) established a collaboration with the Air Force to engage MITRE on a project called SATIN (SAGE Air Traffic Integration). SATIN aimed to develop a single, unified system for managing the nation's airspace.

Radome housing
The most distinctive feature of an AWACS aircraft is the radome housing the surveillance radar antenna. Labeled by some as "an insult to aerodynamics," the radome is a highly engineered product that must be fabricated with great care and precision.

MITRE also brought the SAGE technology to our allies. We set up an office in Paris to help NATO create the NATO Air Defense Ground Environment. We then branched into missile defense with the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. We also helped develop the advanced computing and communications systems at the North American Air Defense Command Combat Operations Center at Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs.

In 1963, the Department of Defense's Defense Communications Agency selected MITRE as its principal source of technical support for the National Military Command System. This evolved into the Worldwide Military Command and Control System.

MITRE's continued work for the Air Force included technical assistance on AWACS. MITRE engineer Jack Shay persuaded Brigadier General Kendall Russell to use a prototype command-and-control data link called Seek Bus during a demonstration in Ramstein, Germany. The data link proved highly effective during the testing. In 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger expanded its use to all branches of the military to form JTIDS.

In 1977, the first operational E-3 AWACS aircraft was delivered to the Tactical Air Command with JTIDS terminals. MITRE supported the production of additional AWACS, some acquired by U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East.

In the aftermath of the successful European AWACS demonstration, MITRE found itself drawn into developing systems to gather and distribute intelligence information. In the early 1970s, the company applied time-division, multiple access architectural principles (demonstrated in JTIDS) to wideband digital communications over coaxial cable. The result was a patented, cable-based system called MITRIX, which enabled one of the first local area networks.

The MITRIX experience immediately bore fruit in the company’s next major program in the world of intelligence. Called the Department of Defense Intelligence Information System, it's still in use today.

(Video) For well over three decades, MITRE has been a leader in the evolution of AWACS, the Airborne Warning and Control System. In 1973, the first AWACS prototype, with its distinctive rotating antenna, took to the air—thanks in large part to MITREs contributions.

The Information Age Takes Flight

The rapid pace of change in information technology that characterized the late 1980s and early 1990s greatly influenced the evolution of MITRE's work.

The company opened a new installation at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1989 to support the Army’s growing volume of work in battlefield visualization. In 1991, the Air Force deployed two prototype Joint STARS aircraft for Operation Desert Storm to identify and track the movement of Iraqi ground vehicles. For many years, MITRE served as the Joint STARS program's systems engineer for design, analysis, and testing.

Collier Trophy
Collier Trophy

In 1990, more than three decades after MITRE’s first collaboration with the FAA, the agency sponsored a new FFRDC called the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development. In 1999, MITRE, working with the FAA and industry, evaluated the prototype Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology. In 2008, the ADS-B team won the prestigious Collier Trophy for this ground-breaking effort to improve the safety, capacity, and efficiency of the National Airspace System.

As the FFRDC model evolved, so did MITRE. In 1996, MITRE divided into two entities. MITRE continued to focus on the DoD and the FAA, while the newly formed Mitretek Systems (now called Noblis) worked with other agencies. In 1998, the Internal Revenue Service selected MITRE to operate its FFRDC to support the modernization of its aging information systems. In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs becomes a co-sponsor with the IRS of the Center for Enterprise Modernization.

Meeting 21st Century Challenges

The attacks of September 11, 2001, deeply affected MITRE. The death of MITRE employee Dr. Carl M. Hammond, who was on United Airlines Flight 175, left the MITRE community shocked and saddened. Not ones to stand by in a crisis, MITRE mobilized several employees to lend their knowledge and expertise. A team traveled to the World Trade Center site, contributing advanced technology to assist in the relief and recovery effort. At the Pentagon, MITRE worked to stabilize and rebuild the DoD's information infrastructure.

Dr. David Kaplan at the WTC
Dr. David Kaplan, looking north, stands on the West Side Highway at Vesey Street on Sept. 13, 2001—the day the MITRE-CECOM team arrived at the WTC.

Following the attacks, the government created the Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, the new Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute™ became the fourth FFRDC operated by MITRE.

From 2010 through 2014, MITRE became the operator of three more FFRDCs. In 2010, the Federal Judiciary created the Judiciary Engineering and Modernization Center. In 2012, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Department of Health and Human Services created the CMS Alliance to Modernize Healthcare. In 2014, the National Cybersecurity FFRDC was created by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Each of these FFRDCs has helped advance government operations through innovative systems development and organizational transformation.

Today, information systems and technical capabilities continue to grow more powerful. Yet despite this progress, budget pressures oblige government agencies to streamline, economize, and pool their resources. Meeting these intertwined challenges requires the combined efforts of government, academia, industry, and the non-profit sector—including MITRE. As in 1958, MITRE's mission endures, enabling us to transcend organizational interests and boundaries to serve the public interest and to solve problems for a safer world.