World War II had established the key military importance of radar. In 1945, when the MIT and Harvard wartime laboratories were dissolved, the Army Air Forces aimed to continue some of their programs in radar, radio and electronic research. It recruited scientists and engineers from the laboratories, and its new Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL) took over MIT's test site at Hanscom Field.
By 1950, the Air Force was working closely with MIT to develop a new air defense system for the continental United States. Expanding its facilities at Hanscom Field was a step to accomplishing this massive project. After some negotiation, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts agreed in May 1952 to cede land on one side of the airport to the federal government and to give a 25-year renewable lease on the airfield itself.
The first buildings for the new MIT Lincoln Laboratory at Hanscom were completed in 1952, and the Air Force's electronic and geophysics laboratories in Cambridge started to migrate out to Bedford in 1954. The airfield's runways were reconfigured and expanded in 1953 and new hangars, headquarters and facilities were built. To provide test and evaluation for Lincoln Lab's new "Cape Cod" experimental air defense system, Hanscom's 6520th Test Support Wing logged in thousands of hours of flying time.
The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system completed in the early 1960s revolutionized air defense and also contributed significantly to advances in air traffic control systems. As the SAGE system matured, the Air Force pursued the development of a number of advanced command, control and communications systems.
In 1961 the Electronic Systems Division (ESD) was established at Hanscom Field, in order to consolidate the management of the Air Force's electronic systems under one agency. Since that time, the Electronics Systems Division (redesignated the Electronic Systems Center in 1992) has been the host organization on the base.
While Hanscom's role in system acquisition flourished after the 1950s, its operational mission gradually diminished. As of September 1973 all regular flying operations at Hanscom ceased. The following year the Air Force terminated its lease of the airfield portion of Hanscom Field, which reverted to state control, but retained the right to use the field. The Air Force redesignated its own acreage surrounding the field as the Laurence G. Hanscom Air Force Base. In 1977 the name was shortened to the present Hanscom Air Force Base.
The base saw a second wave of construction during the 1980s. The Electronic Systems Division put up four new systems management engineering facilities (the O'Neill, Brown, Shiely and Bond buildings). For base personnel, there were new service facilities -- medical, youth and family support centers -- as well as additional housing and a temporary lodging facility. Organizations currently on the base included the 66th Air Base Wing, the MITRE Corporation, sections of the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
Since July 1992, Hanscom and the Electronic Systems Center (ESC) have been part of the Air Force Materiel Command. In 1994 the Air Force designated ESC as the Air Force Center of Excellence for Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I).
The Standard Systems Group at Gunter Annex, Maxwell AFB, Ala.; the 38th Engineering Installation Wing at Tinker AFB, Okla.; the Materiel Systems Group at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; and lastly the Cryptologic Systems Group at Kelly AFB, Texas; were all attached to ESC between 1993 and 1996 in order to consolidate related functions in AFMC under the Center, and to support its expanded mission.
In 2004, ESC was reorganized into a named wing, group and squadron unit, to better reflect the organization of the Air Force as a whole. In 2006, the wings, groups and squadrons were given numbered designations. In 2010, ESC reverted back to an organization of program offices and the 38th Engineering Installation Wing (by then a group) was re-assigned. New Air Force standards caused the 66th Air Base Wing, because of its size, to be redesignated the 66th Air Base Group.
The Air Force Research Laboratory Sensors Directorate moved move from Hanscom to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, in June of 2011, closing more than 60 years of a laboratory presence on Hanscom.
The Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom AFB is an integral part of the evolving electronics technology community in the Boston area, which consists of educational institutions, private industry and military research and development installations. Today, the center continues its leadership role in the development and acquisition of Air Force command and control systems.