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The 551st Electronic Systems Wing (551 ELSW) is a wing of the United States Air Force whose focus is on 'behind the scenes' electronic work. Located at Hanscom Air Force Basemarker, Massachusettsmarker, they work on AWACS, Joint STARS, MP-RTIP, Mission Planning, and weather systems.

Now responsible for the development and sustainment of command and control systems, the 551st ELSW takes its designation from a wing that laid the foundation for modern-day airborne surveillance.



  • Established as 51 Transport Wing on 30 May 1942
Activated on 1 Jun 1942
Redesignated 51 Troop Carrier Wing on 4 Jul 1942
Inactivated on 5 Jan 1948
Disestablished on 15 Jun 1983
  • Reestablished, and consolidated (31 Jul 1985), with 551 Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing, which was established on 11 Oct 1954
Activated on 18 Dec 1954
Inactivated on 31 Dec 1969
  • Redesignated 551 Airborne Warning and Control Wing on 31 Jul 1985
Consolidated (6 Apr 2006), with the Battle Management Systems Wing, which was established on 23 Nov 2004.
Activated on 17 Dec 2004
Redesignated 551 Electronic Systems Wing on 17 Apr 2006.


Attached to: XII Troop Carrier Command [Provisional], 21 Mar 1943-19 Feb 1944
Attached to: IX Troop Carrier Command [Provisional], 16 Jul-c. 25 Aug 1944
  • AAF Service Command, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, 15 Aug 1945


  • 302 Transport: attached 4 Sep-c. 9 Dec 1945


  • 960 Airborne Early Warning and Control: 8 Mar 1955-31 Jul 1969
  • 961 Airborne Early Warning and Control: 18 Dec 1954-31 Dec 1969
  • 962 Airborne Early Warning and Control: 8 Jul 1955-31 Dec 1969
  • 966 Airborne Early Warning and Control: 1 Feb 1962-1 May 1963; 1 Jul-15 Nov 1969
  • 4753 Air Defense (Training): 22 Apr 1968-31 Dec 1969.


Aircraft assigned


Activated at Pope Field, NC, on 1 Jun 1942. Moved to England, Aug-Sep 1942, and trained for the invasion of North Africa. Operated with Twelfth Air Force in North Africa and the Mediterranean area from Nov 1942 to May 1945. Scheduled transportation of supplies, ammunition and personnel to the front. Directed paratroop and supply drops. Set up system of air evacuation of the wounded. In May 1943 added a training program for combat crews in night formations, glider towing, night navigation and over-water flights in preparation for the invasion of Sicily in Jul 1943. Later directed glider operations for the invasion of Italy in Sep1943 and Southern France in Aug 1944. Lost all components and became non-operational in early Jun 1945.

Moved to Germany in late Aug 1945 and provided the basis for creation of the European Air Transport Service (Provisional) which operated under USAFE to establish air routes and carry passengers and cargo throughout western Europe and the Mediterranean, 4 Sep 1945-20 Dec 1947. Wing inactivated 5 Jan 1948

Cold War period

The 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing, established and activated in 1954, was charged with tracking air and sea activity along the United Statesmarker eastern seaboard.

The wing received its first airborne asset March 2, 1955, when an RC-121D landed at Otis Air Force Basemarker. The plane was the first of many assigned to the 551st to patrol the skies over much of the Atlantic Ocean. The RC-121D was eventually upgraded to the EC-121H Warning Star in 1963.

The newer model supplanted the slower voice and manual Teletype data relay system previously employed by the RC-121D and instead provided instantaneous automated relay of air defense surveillance and early-warning information by data-link directly to ground-based communication facilities.

The 551 AEWC Wing provided critical surveillance data to Air Defense Command and Control computers and the North American Air Defense Combat Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for air defense evaluation and action. The data also enabled more versatile airborne control of interceptor missile and aircraft weapons systems.

During the Cold War period, the 551st provided surveillance support for major world events, including tracking over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis and tracking Russian aircraft and naval vessels off Iceland and the East Coast of the United States.

The wing also provided surveillance over Johnston and Christmas islands during nuclear testing by the Atomic Energy Commission and performed a variety of surveillance services in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

In its first 10 years, the wing flew continuous missions over the Atlantic Oceanmarker 24 hours a day, seven days a week, compiling more than 350,000 flying hours. Among other honors awarded to the wing was the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its significant performance.


The wing was deactivated Dec. 31, 1969, but the 551st has an active alumni corps that has maintained the wing’s camaraderie, spirit and dedication to the nation’s defense over the past 36 years.

“The old 551st was the forerunner for the surveillance assets in service today, and we’re extremely proud of the work we accomplished in the unit,” said Floyd I. Shank, who served as an airborne radar operator in the 551st and now organizes alumni events for the wing. “We’re all excited about the new organization and we’re confident the 551st ELSW will continue the proud 551st tradition of excellence.”


The wing was re-designated April 18, 2006, when the Battle Management Systems Wing changed to the 551st Electronic Systems Wing. The 551st ELSW is now responsible for rapid development and fielding of airborne battle management command, control and communications systems in support of combatant commanders, special operations forces and worldwide allies.

The 551st Electronic Systems Group, formerly the Airborne Warning and Control Systems Group, is responsible for all aspects of modernization and sustainment of the United States and international E-3 Sentry aircraft and airborne early warning and control fleets.

Other similar units

The 751st Electronic Systems Group, formerly the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System Systems Group, is responsible for all aspects of the development, acquisition and sustainment of the Joint STARS system.

The 851st Electronic Systems Group, formerly the E-10/MP-RTIP Systems Group, is responsible for developing, acquiring, testing, sustaining and improving the $1.5 billion Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program. The group manages and coordinates support to all assigned programs from internal, functional and matrix organizations to provide the warfighter with an airborne combat system with onboard battle management that detects, tracks and targets cruise missiles and time sensitive targets for destruction by joint and coalition air, land and naval forces.

The 951st Electronic Systems Group, formerly the Mission Planning Systems Group, develops and supports a suite of mission planning systems that meet the needs of more than 40 Air Force aircraft and weapons systems. In addition, the Navy, Marines, Army, several government agencies, and 23 allied nations use these mission planning systems for daily operations.

The 551 ELSW weather systems division acquires and fields terrestrial weather and strategic systems capability, then delivers decision-quality environmental information to Air Force and Army commanders to support global military operations in peace and war.


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