High Tech Trailblazers

Aug. 1, 1984

Trails blazed by the select nonprofit corporations that support the Air Force — the designated Federal Contract Research Centers (FCRCs) — can be found across the range of high-technology activities in space, ballistic missiles, air defense, and command control and communications.

These government-sponsored nonprofit corporations associated with the Department of Defense do not work for defense industry, do not engage in manufacturing, and do not compete with industry or other private organizations for defense business. They are expected to maintain an internal environment conducive to technical excellence, professional integrity, and independence and objectivity in their assigned areas of responsibility, and at the same time to have a close and highly supportive relationship with their Air Force sponsors.

At present, the Air Force FCRCs include the Rand Corp., the Lincoln Laboratory of MIT, the MITRE Corp., and the Aerospace Corp. Each organization, in order to meet the specialized requirements of its Air Force mission, differs in significant ways from the others.

Hap Arnold’s Vision

In a very real sense, the establishment of these organizations reflects the experience of World War II when the best scientific, technical, and intellectual resources of the nation were marshaled in support of the war effort. Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, saw the wave of the future springing from this wartime experience. He recognized the need for positive action after the war to retain the advantages of the direct support of the military by the scientific and technical communities.

General Arnold sought to build a viable scientific and technological infrastructure for the Air Force in a number of significant ways. He played a major role in initiating the idea of Project RAND (an acronym for “research and development”) — a contracted effort for full-time civilian scientists to conduct research on the broad subject of intercontinental warfare. The aim of the project was to provide scientific advice to the Army Air Force and to make recommendations to enhance future Air Force mission capabilities.

This effort was initially placed under the management of the Douglas Aircraft Co. However, the broad sweep and potentially large influence of the work led to genuine concern over possible conflicts of interest, and certainly over the appearances of such conflict. Accordingly, with Douglas’s acquiescence, the Air Force arranged in 1948 for the transfer of Project RAND and its personnel to a new nonprofit corporation called the Rand Corp.

The underlying principles and institutional frameworks that were devised in setting up Project RAND and that were modified by evolution through experience served as the archetype for the subsequent FCRCs that were established to meet other needs of an Air Force operating at the forefront of technological development. Fundamental to the Air Force approach to achieving the benefits of scientific and technical excellence was the recognition that substantial freedom of action was required in scientific support organizations to carry out their missions, that the research environment and management in such organizations could not be patterned on military or bureaucratic models, and that the advice and recommendations from such organizations could not be constrained to fit existing or planned military doctrines, technological “party lines,” program commitments, or prevailing political wisdom.

On From Rand

As the post-World War II political environment developed and the dismal prospect of a long-term adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union unfolded, it became clear that continental air defense required serious attention. The situation became much more urgent when the Soviets detonated their first atomic device in 1949, well ahead of the time many American scientists had anticipated. During World War II, the leading American center for radar research had been the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it was naturally to MIT that the Air Force turned for help in achieving technological advancements in air defense. A study by a committee e of the air Force Scientific Advisory Board led to an advanced concept for a highly centralized automated air defense system that contemplated heavy reliance on digital computers, then in their infancy. Out of this concept the SAGE (or Semiautomatic Ground Environment) system was to take shape after much study and development.

The Air Force decided in 1950, after much debate concerning the technical risks and the relative merits of centralized vs. decentralized air defense systems, to proceed with the development of the new air defense system contemplated by the committee. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg wrote to James R. Killian, Jr., MIT’s President, requesting the establishment of a laboratory devoted to research and development for air defense, and Dr. Killian agreed. Thus was created the Air Force’s second FCRC — Lincoln Laboratory of MIT — with a role quite different from that of the first scientific laboratory, the Rand Corp. But the Air Force philosophy regarding the mode of laboratory management and the laboratory’s relationship to the Air Force owed much to the Rand experience.

After intensive research, development, and demonstration efforts involving close collaboration between the Air Force, Lincoln Laboratory, and numerous industrial contractors, the first SAGE direction center became operational under the air Defense Command on July 1, 1958, at McGuire AFG, N.J.

By that time, MIT and many of the Lincoln staff felt that efforts in direct support of an operational system were increasingly remote from the appropriate work of an academic institution, which, it was felt, should in peacetime be devoted more properly to the earlier stages of research and development rather than to system implementation.

After lengthy consideration, it was decided to establish a new nonprofit corporation, an FCRC to take over the work on the SAGE system. On July 1, 1958, the MITRE Corp. came into being.

The significance of MITRE as the third of the Air Force’s current FCRCs goes well beyond its mission statement in air defense. Creation of the MITRE Corp. confirmed what was already in the wind in other Air Force endeavors and what was to some degree implicit I the SAGE system concept itself — that the time had come when engineering and integration of large-scale systems for surveillance and command control and communications had to be recognized as major functions that would require high-level management attention in the future Air Force panoply of systems.

The Air Force’s new FCRC, the MITRE Corp., which cut its teeth on SAGE, would prove to be a splendid instrument with which to attack the system-engineering and integration problems of the new generations of electronic systems the Air Force would need to acquire.

The New Challenge

The events leading to the establishment of the last of the quartet of current Air Force FCRCs resulted from the advent of ballistic missile and space systems in the mid-950s. The Air Force recognized early on threat success in these important areas would require extraordinary and innovative management and technical approaches. As it had in the SAGE system, to the fore come the theme of integration of diverse and highly sophisticated technologies at the leading edge of progress through a multiplicity of industrial contractors providing system components.

To meet these new technical and management challenges, the Air Force in 1954 established the Western Development Division (WDD) of the Air Research and Development Command (which was later renamed Air Force Systems Command) and gave it exceptionally broad authority and responsibilities for the conduct of the ballistic missile program. Gen. B. A. Schriever, who was named Commander of WDD, sought to avail himself of the best scientific and technical resources in the nation to support his efforts. His scientific advisors counseled him that the airframe companies that had been heavily involved in the preliminary research and development activity on ballistic missile components did not have the broad range of technical expertise required for the systems engineering of ballistic missile systems.

General Schriever then contracted with the Ramo-Wooldridge Corp., a newly formed organization that had financial backing from the Thompson Products Corp., a major manufacturer of automotive and aircraft parts. Since both Ramo-Wooldridge and Thompson Products were potential component production contractors for ballistic missile program, there was obviously concern in the Air Force and in industry about possible conflict of interest in this arrangement. Consequently, the Air Force imposed a “hardware exclusion” clause in the Ramo-Wooldridge contract.

Ramo-Wooldridge formed a special unit, Space Technology Laboratories (STL), to take over the ballistic missile systems engineering work. In 1958, Thompson Products and Ramo-Wooldridge merged to form TRW, with the result that the Air Force imposed the hardware exclusion on TRW in its entirety. This state of affairs was not viewed as completely satisfactory by either the Air Force or industry. And in the meantime, Congress became active in questioning the relationships between the Air Force and its systems engineering contractors.

Missiles and Space

The oncoming wave of space system development, which was foreseen and which would further greatly expand the need for systems engineering and integration support, gave some urgency to the need to find more acceptable ways of providing such support. In 1959, the Committee on Government Operations of the House of Representatives issued a report, after extensive hearings, that called for conversion of STL to a nonprofit institution “akin to the Rand Corp.” After exploration of alternatives, General Schriever, along with others in the Air Force, came to a similar conclusion.

To perform the future supporting role in systems engineering and integration on ballistic missile and space systems, a new nonprofit organization, the Aerospace Corp., was formed in June 1960 at the request of the Secretary of the Air Force. In the interest of avoiding undue program disruptions, responsibility for continuing systems engineering on Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman remained with STL. Nevertheless, STL cooperated with the Air Force in the transfer of a substantial number of key personnel to the new corporation.

It was contemplated that Aerospace Corp. would be assigned future ballistic missile programs. It was not foreseen, however, that US progress in ICBMs over the next twenty years would b limited to incremental and evolutionary improvements in Minuteman. Therefore, in accordance with the original concept, system engineering responsibility remained with STL/TRW.

In the early 1960s, the Aerospace Corp. was involved in the preliminary design and planning for the Mobile Medium-Range Ballistic Missile intended for deployment in Europe, but this was terminated before it proceeded very far into development. Aerospace Corp. was involved in much of the preliminary design and planning leading to Minuteman II and III and to the proposed WAS-120A, a heavy ICBM with ten to twenty reentry vehicles that was in many ways a precursor of MX.

Currently, the efforts of Aerospace Corp. for the Air Force are focused exclusively on space systems

FCRCs Over the Years

Over the years, the definitions and criteria applicable to FCRCs have evolved in response to both legislative and executive branch concerns and interest. There are now fewer FCRC organization, and they meet more rigorous standards than before.

One of the most noteworthy of the organizations designated as Air Force FCRCs in the past was the System Development Corp. SDC was an offshoot of Rand and was created in 1956 to meet the massive computer programming requirements of the SAGE system. At the time, such programming capabilities were nowhere to be found in the commercial sector of the economy. As new Air Force electronic command control and communications systems entered development, SDC was a natural choice to undertake similar programming responsibilities.

By the early 1960s, computer technology had matured, applications had proliferated, and commercially available software capability had increased to such a degree that it was no longer necessary or desirable for the Air Force to maintain a specially sponsored nonprofit organization in the computer software ears. At the same time, the SDC management and staff themselves wished to broaden their interests and involvement in the expanding fields of computer application. Therefore, the Air Force transitioned SDC out of the FCRC category in the early 1960s, putting its contract continuation on a competitive basis. In 1969, SDC turned over its assets to a nonprofit foundation and converted to profit-making corporation status.

Another important Air Force FCRC in previous years was the ANSER (for Analytic SERvices) Corp. Formed with assistance from the Rand Corp., its purpose was to provide more direct, short-term analytical support to the Air Staff than could be expected in the context of Rand’s long-range mission objectives. In 1977, a comprehensive plan for restructuring the complement of DoD FCRCs was implemented by Dr. Malcolm R. Currie, then Director of Defense Research and Engineering, and the number of FCRCs was reduced substantially. ANSER transitioned to nonsponsored status but continued in its new role to be an important contractor for analytical support to the Air Staff.

Other DoD components now have or have had FCRCs, although none used them across as broad a range of activities as did the Air Force. As a result of the 1977 DDR&E restructuring of the DoD’s FCRC list, the Air Force now sponsors four of the six existing FCRCs and has the only FCRCs outside the area of studies and analyses. In the area of studies and analyses (in which the Rand Corp. serves the Air Force), the Navy has the Center for Naval Analyses (CAN), and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and defense agencies have the Institute for Defense Analyses, or IDA.

The Air Force FCRCs have regularly undertaken work for other DoD components. Rand has had substantial programs for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARAPA), while MITRE has performed, in particular, a substantial technical support role for the Defense Communications Agency and, more recently, significant work for the Army. The Lincoln Laboratory is engaged not only in work for OSD and defense agencies but also conducts sizable programs for the other military services. The Aerospace Corp. has also taken part in numerous DARPA programs and has provided technical assistance to the other military services.

Diversification of FCRCs

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, national concern about the problems of poverty, the cities, the environment, law enforcement, education, and energy led to a burgeoning of federally sponsored research and other programs directed toward these areas. Many government officials, political leaders, and scholars believed that solutions could be derived rationally through research and study and could be technologically implemented by techniques that the Defense Department had pioneered.

This belief led several successive Secretaries of Defense, beginning with Robert McNamara, to urge the FCRCs to help these efforts. Thus began a broad program of diversification for many of the FCRCs that greatly expanded their work for government agencies other than DoD. Although this diversification trend started up very rapidly and, in some cases, seemed to threaten to overwhelm the DoD activities of some organizations, the trend gradually moderated. The initial start-up growth in most of the civil research areas leveled off, and in some cases declined, as it was realized that in many areas the problems were basically not readily susceptible to easy solutions by application of massive doses of either analysis or technology. But a hard core of civil programs remains and flourishes in several of the FCRCs.

The diversification process and the requirements imposed by the DDR&E in 1977 on the FCRC structure of DoD have had a significant impact on the institutional form of two of the Air Force FCRCs. The Rand Corp. separated its FCRC role for the Air Force FCRCs. The Rand Corp. separated its FCRC role for the Air Force, named it Project Air Force, and established it as a major corporate division; two other divisions deal with other national security programs and domestic programs. At about the same time, MITRE consolidated its nonmilitary work in METREK, a separate division, with several other divisions devoted primarily to military programs that constitute the major part Of MITRE’s activity.

Special Scrutiny

Because of the special and noncompetitive position of the FCRCs with respect to their sponsoring agencies, they have in the past been the subject of special contract provisions and DoD, service, and agency regulations, special congressional scrutiny, and some legislation. In the latter category have been requirements for reporting of salaries and restrictions on the acquisition of property. Because FCRCs do not fit into the “normal” ways of doing business, concerns with such administrative and financial matters have, in the past, sometimes obscured the primary purpose of FCRCs — to fill important and special roles in providing scientific and technical support to the military in an essential way not readily achievable with other “normal” institutional forms. In recent year, however, the concept has been better understood in both the executive and legislative branches. The value of the achievements of the individual FCRCs has been better appreciated, and they have been more or less accepted as a necessary and effective part of the rich diversity of scientific and technical infrastructure that has helped keep the US in the forefront of technological progress in both the military and civilian sectors.

The work of the Air Force FCRCs, past and present, reflects the many ways in which the Ai Force has sought and still seeks to achieve the operational and technological superiority alluded to by General Arnold in 1946: “I don’t think that we dare muddle through the next twenty years the way we have…the last twenty years…I was sometimes scared by the knowledge…we weren’t using.” The FCRCs have been one of the most important means by which the Air Force has avoided just “muddling through.”

Rand: Broad Perspectives

From its very beginning, Project RAND plunged into the exploration of the frontiers of science and technology. In May 1946, Project RAND issued a report on “preliminary Design of an Experimental Earth-Circling Spaceship” that cast some light into a space-age future that was not as far off as most people thought. But the Rand Corp. also gave much attention to more immediate interests of the Air Force, such as the aerodynamic, structural, and propulsion technologies that could make possible major advances in aircraft performance, and the application of aerial refueling to extending the range o aircraft.

One of the most significant developments at Rand, however, was an evolution toward a broader perspective in doing studies on weapons forces and their employment. This broad perspective recognized that interactions with political, economic, and social factors, both at home and abroad, were often at least as important as technological considerations in evaluating national security initiatives and alternatives. This approach later came to be called “systems analysis” and today is practiced widely in government and industry.

The first large-scale Rand study to reflect this approach concerned overseas basing. Asked to help the Air Force choose optimum locations for overseas basing of strategic aircraft, Rand recommended instead more basing in the US and emphasized aerial refueling. This recommendation, which seems obviously correct today, was then somewhat radical, but it was adopted by the Air Force.

Currently, Project Air Force is engaged in studies and analyses covering the gamut of air Force interests, to include such subjects as strategic bomber penetration, battlefield air interdiction, future tactical aircraft, space systems, manpower, and logistics. A particularly topical result of studies in the logistics area was one that provided the impetus for the European Distribution System currently being implemented by the Air Force for support of aircraft in the European theater.


The MITRE Corp. went on from its SAGE work to support of the North American Aerospace Defense Command Combat Operations Center in Cheyenne Mountain — and then to working on a variety of Air Force and other DoD electronic command and control systems. These efforts encompassed the so-called “L” systems, including SAC’s 481L, Post-Attack Command and Control System; and the National Military Command System (NMCS).

More recent MITRE programs supported the development of the AWACS system and its vital “Seek Bus” communications link. Closely related was the work on the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), a highly versatile multiple-access communications system incorporating high levels of anti-jam protection and cryptographic security, which in various forms and for various purposes is being adopted by the Air Force, Army, and Navy. And evolving out of a long history of prior effort on the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) and other surveillance, warning and tracking systems for air and space is the MITRE work on two of the newest Air Force surveillance and warning sensor systems. One, PAVE PAWS, is a system of phased-array radars on the east and west coasts of the US for detection of SLBM launches. The other system to which MITRE contributed was the over-the-horizon (OTH) radars for long-range surveillance of aircraft beyond US borders.

Lincoln Lab: Experimental Satellites

The Lincoln Laboratory, once its SAGE responsibilities were assumed by MITRE, concentrated its efforts again on advanced technology. Areas of study included air defense, ballistic missile defense, communications (including satellite communications), a broad range of surveillance sensor and signal processing technologies, and general electronics. Operating large radar facilities in the Pacific near the ICBM reentry vehicle impact area, Lincoln played and continues to play a significant role both in Air Force ICBM reentry system and Army ballistic missile defense system research and development. These activities have contributed to reentry vehicle observability and decoy discrimination as well as to advanced radar techniques.

Lincoln’s work on satellite communications resulted in a series of advanced development prototypes — the Lincoln Experimental Satellites (LES) — that explored technologies and operational techniques for military satellite systems, tactical and strategic. Once established in orbit, the LES satellites not only were used for technical experiments but also were made accessible to military organizations for exploratory operational use. The current generation of operational military communications satellites owes much to the information and experience already provided by the LES series. The current LES satellites, LES 8 and 9 are aimed at meeting the even more demanding military requirements of the future.

Aerospace: Final Frontiers

The Aerospace Corp. Was immersed from its beginning in the rapidly expanding national space program. The earliest available space launch vehicles with significant payload capacities evolved from the Air Force’s Thor, Atlas, and Titan ballistic missiles. Aerospace Corp., early on, provided the systems engineering and integration support for the Air Force on these systems. In this role it was involved in the development of man-rated versions of Atlas and Titan II for the NASA Mercury and Gemini missions.

The first major new DoD development endeavor in launch vehicles, begun in 1961, was the Titan III. Although the core of this vehicle was made up of modifications of the Titan II stages, it had new, large solid-motor strap-ons and an entirely new upper stage, the Transtage, to provide geosynchronous orbit capability. The Titan III development, which involved Aerospace heavily, was highly successful, and the vehicle has been a workhorse for the Air Force space program. It is now being phased out in favor of the Space Shuttle. Aerospace Corp. has been a participant in the Shuttle program from its inception and is responsible for systems engineering and integration on Air Force launches and on the Air Force’s own Shuttle launch facilities being constructed at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

Aerospace Corp. work on satellite systems has covered the entire spectrum of military systems in space. Early efforts focused on the Vela satellite for nuclear-burst detection in space, for which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency assigned responsibility to the Air Force. These satellites, expected originally to have a lifetime of six months in space, have lasted ten years and more. Satellite interceptor efforts began in the early 1960s with the “Saint” program, which was canceled, but work continued on subsequent systems culminating in the current development of an ASAT based on a miniature homing vehicle launched from an F-15. This satellite interceptor system is in early stages of flight-testing.

Aerospace Corp. responsibilities have included the Defense Meteorological Satellites and the entire series of Defense Communications Satellites, beginning with the interim ones. The first seven satellites of this system were launched successfully into geosynchronous orbit by a Titan IIIC in June 1968. Communications satellites for the United Kingdom and NATO followed, as did DSCS II and III. Aerospace Corp. is currently working on Milstar, the next-generation military communications satellite system.

The author, Alexander H. Flax, is President Emeritus of the Institute for Defense Analyses, Alexandria, Va. Following his early career as an aerospace industry executive, Dr. Flax served as Air Force Chief Scientist and as Assistant Secretary for Research and Development. He was named President of IDA in 1969 and served in that capacity until 1983.