Mitchell Institute Releases New Study: Beyond the Iron Triad

ARLINGTON, Va (September 18, 2017) —The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is pleased to announce the release of its latest research study, Beyond the Iron Triad: The Future of Airborne C2ISR by Col Matt Hurley, USAF (Ret.). Hurley, a Senior Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, is a retired career intelligence officer who completed a wide variety of assignments during his active duty service, and has written extensively on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance topics as well as airpower history. In this study, Hurley takes a deep and wide look at some of the Air Force’s most valuable airborne command and control and ISR assets, and how the Air Force can modernize both capabilities and concepts of operation.

Today, the US Air Force’s “Big Wing” C2 and ISR aircraft provide critical situational awareness of air and surface activity, as well as adversary intentions across the spectrum of conflict. The three in-demand assets that make up what is known as the “Iron Triad” are the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), and the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint electronic and signals intelligence gathering aircraft.

This Mitchell study addresses the past, present, and future of these valuable aircraft, and the future operating environment where airborne command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C2ISR) will be even more vital to successful military campaigns and contingency operations. The study emphasizes the need for a fundamental transformation in thinking about these important mission sets, beginning with how planners conceive of future systems, and how operators employ them when the results matter most.

“In an era increasingly defined by rapid technological innovation, the United States must modernize its military capabilities to reflect the importance of information,” Hurley writes. “No longer will victory go to the force with the most tanks, ships, or airplanes. Instead, victory will belong to the side that best knows how to employ available assets at the right time and place to maximize desired aims, while minimizing potential vulnerabilities.” While the tenets of industrial-age firepower remain highly relevant, he adds, “the United States must consider implications brought about by the information tools now at its disposal.”

The Mitchell Institute Research Studies serve as an avenue for innovative, insightful, and effective ideas and solutions that strengthen and enhance aerospace power’s role in securing America’s interests.

For more information on the studies, contact Mitchell’s Director of Publications Marc V. Schanz at or visit our website, at

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