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MITRE Corporation is a federally funded nonprofit organization that performs systems engineering and integration work for the command, control, communications, and intelligence systems of the Department of Defense. MITRE also performs systems research and development work for the Federal Aviation Administration and other civil aviation authorities. It maintains facilities in Bedford, Massachusetts, and McLean, Virginia.
Electronic-Systems Pioneer: 1958-70
MITRE was formed in 1958 as a federally funded “think tank,” with its staff detached from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratories, which had been established by the Pentagon in 1951. Some 480 laboratory personnel were transferred to the new organization, whose first task was to develop the nation’s first automated, real-time air defense system for the U.S. Air Force, which had been unable to find a for-profit company to do the job. Later, in 1989, Charles S. Zrabet—president and chief executive officer at the time—recalled MITRE’s beginnings: “They wanted a dedicated laboratory that had the multi-disciplines of radar, computers, and communications. It was a new technology, and there was no expertise for this anywhere.”
In its early years MITRE played a vital role in helping design electronic systems that detected and tracked Soviet-bloc missiles and aircraft and intercepted communications. It played a major part in designing the hardened, underground North American Air Defense (NORAD) facilities intended to protect against a possible nuclear attack by enemy aircraft and/or ballistic missiles. In order to process and interpret information quickly for military purposes, MITRE, together with the Electronic Systems Division (BSD) of the U.S. Air Force Systems Command, came to possess, by 1962, one of the most powerful computers in the world. The computer was an IBM 7030 that, including peripheral equipment, covered a space the equivalent of a basketball court. Also in 1962, MITRE and ESD sponsored the first congress of information system sciences ever held.
During the Vietnam War, MITRE endured criticism by opponents of the war for its role in developing a so-called electronic fence, composed mainly of acoustics and sensors, that was supposed to help pinpoint the movement of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces into South Vietnam. Despite the unpopularity of the war and the doomsday scenarios of the Cold War era, Zrabet told a reporter in 1985 that in his many years at MITRE he could not remember a time when an employee left due to objections to the moral or political nature of the organization’s work.
Not all of MITRE’s work was related to the military, however. During the 1960s it began to work on systems used for civilian air-traffic control. As electronic command and control systems proliferated, in 1963 the organization established a Washington-area office in addition to its Bedford, Massachusetts facility. This new office was later moved to McLean, Virginia. Because the technology it developed for the military was also useful for civilian applications, MITRE helped civil agencies develop information systems for transportation, medicine, law enforcement, space exploration, and environmental remediation. In 1971, for example, it began developing a two-way, interactive cable-television system.
Expansion in the 1970s and 1980s
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, MITRE continued to work on air defense and other command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) systems used by Department of Defense clients. C3I networks were frequently referred to as the brains or nervous systems of weaponry. They consisted of command centers on both the ground and in airplanes, the radar and satellites scanning the battlefield, and the communications equipment linking the other components. MITRE also became heavily involved in satellite communications technology, and in the late 1980s was working on Millstar, a system designed to provide worldwide communications for the military which was not only invulnerable to enemy efforts to jam it, but also capable of surviving nuclear attack.
On the one hand, to preserve the credibility of the United States’ deterrent to nuclear attack, it was essential that the C3I systems function so that the military could counter any enemy first strike with a retaliatory attack. These systems had to be able to distinguish a real strike from, for example, blips on the radar screen that turned out to be geese. In addition, nuclear weapons sites had to be protected from entry by unauthorized personnel, which might include thieves or terrorists. Thus, during the 1970s a four-year research effort by MITRE and ESD scientists established automatic speech, handwriting, and fingerprint verification systems to screen all personnel and deny access to would-be intruders.
During the late 1980s MITRE was also taking part in projects to replace the federal telecommunications system, design a new computer system for the Securities and Exchange Commission, upgrade medical information systems for the National Institutes of Health, and store radiological images on computer tape—rather than film—for Georgetown Hospital. MITRE also designed the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information System.
Military projects remained MITRE’s bread and butter, however. Its heyday was during the Reagan Administration’s buildup of the 1980s, when one of the military’s highest priorities became improving command and control systems so that the United States retained the capacity to retaliate against a massive nuclear strike. By the end of the decade MITRE was exploring sensor technology to cope with radar-evading stealth aircraft.
MITRE’s revenues doubled between 1980 and 1984, reaching $287 million by the end of that period, when the workforce rose to 5,000. The company actually outgrew its own facilities in Bedford, Massachusetts, and had to move its operations into several leased buildings. MITRE’s revenues then rose to $463 million in 1988, when it had 5,800 employees and $62 million in a reserve fund. As the Cold War came to a close at the end of the decade, military spending began to decline and competition for contracts became fiercer. Commercial engineering firms argued that they could do MITRE’s work at a lower cost. They complained about the organization’s lack of public accountability, particularly its freedom from the federal government’s competitive bidding process and its exemption from taxes. They also resented MITRE’s power over for-profit companies in its capacity to help review proposals from such contractors and to monitor how well the work was carried out.
MITRE in the 1990s
Amid the uncertainties of a new decade, MITRE continued to collaborate closely with the Air Force’s (renamed) Electronic Systems Center (ESC) at Hanscom Air Force Base. In 1994 MITRE and ESC personnel were engaged in laboratory simulations intended to improve the capabilities of AW ACS and Joint-STARS aircraft to use both onboard and offboard sensors in providing a synthesized picture of the battlefield. Two years later, a journalist visiting the Air Force base received a demonstration of three-dimensional, virtual-reality imaging techniques that might be used to meet a variety of military needs. These ranged from allowing planners to configure an air command center in the field to using robotics to assist surgeons in performing simple operations from a remote site. The visualization lab also created a computer model of a section of Seoul, South Korea, in a 24-hour period as a demonstration of what could be done quickly to aid forces conducting a hostage rescue mission.
MITRE continued to count on steady work from the Federal Aviation Administration. In 1993 this agency awarded the organization a new three-year, $222 million contract to continue operating its Center for Advanced Aviation System Development in McLean and to provide support for further development of the National Airspace System. MITRE also held contracts to help upgrade the federal government’s telephone network and apply a Defense Department navigation system to commercial aviation. Meanwhile, MITRE offered its services to help the military clean up bases and was working with the FBI to improve the National Crime Information Center by, among other things, developing a system to send mug shots directly to police patrol cars.
About 70 percent of MITRE’s work, however, remained in C3I applications for the military. As one of ten federally funded research and development centers scheduled to lose $100 million of $1.35 billion in government funds, the organization reacted by laying off 300 of its 5,500 employees in October 1994. In response to objections raised by members of Congress and the Defense Department, MITRE also cut back on some of its federally funded expenses and canceled holiday parties for executives. It continued to give employees generous relocation allowances, however, and provided automobiles to company officers for personal use. In 1996 a government audit described $4.7 million of $5.3 million in management expenses incurred during fiscal 1994 as “unnecessary and in some cases extravagant.”
In partnership with government clients, MITRE addresses public interest issues of critical importance, combining system engineering and information technology to develop innovative, actionable solutions that make a difference.
MITRE disarmed its critics in January 1996 by divesting itself of $70 million worth of federal nonmilitary contracts. This work was spun off to Mitretek Systems Inc., a new nonprofit organization dedicated to research for nonmilitary federal agencies and state and local governments in such areas as environmental remediation and telecommunications. MITRE would continue working for the military and the FAA but, according to its new president and chief executive officer, Victor A. De-Marines, would no longer work for other nonmilitary agencies or private-sector companies.
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Gwynne, Peter, “Fail Safe,” Newsweek, January 17, 1977, p. 42.
Hughes, David, “Mitre, Air Force Explore Data Fusion for Joint-STARS,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 7, 1994, pp. 47-51.
______, “USAF Finds C3I Uses for Virtual Reality,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 18, 1996, pp. 50-52.
Lewis, Diane, “Mitre Plans to Lay Off 300 Workers with Nearly Half of Cuts in Bedford,” Boston Globe, October 12, 1994, p. 43.
Marcus, Jon, “Defense-Oriented MITRE Adjusts, Finds Work with the FBI,” Boston Globe, April 13, 1993, p. 47.
Stein, Charles, “Mitre Booms As Military Takes Brains over Brawn,” Boston Globe, April 23, 1985, p. 27.
Sugawara, Sandra, “The Mighty Voice of Mitre,” Washington Post, August 20, 1989, p. HI.
Wilgoren, Debbi, “Mitre Corp. Picks Insider As New CEO,” Washington Post, March 2, 1990, p. 10.