Depending on the market the RWR system is designed for, it can be as simple as detecting the presence of energy in a specific radar band (such as police radar detectors). For more critical situations, such as military combat, RWR systems are often capable of classifying the source of the radar by the signal's strength, phase and waveform type, such as pulsed power wave or continuous wave with amplitude modulation or frequency modulation (chirped). The information about the signal's strength and waveform can then be used to estimate the most probable type of threat the detected radar poses. Simpler systems are typically installed in less expensive assets like automobiles, while more sophisticated systems are installed in mission critical assets such as military aircraft.
The RWR usually has a visual display somewhere prominent in the cockpit (in some modern aircraft, in multiple locations in the cockpit) and also generates audible tones which feed into the pilot's (and perhaps RIO/co-pilot/GIB's in a multi-seat aircraft) headset. The visual display often takes the form of a circle, with symbols displaying the detected radars according to their direction relative to the current aircraft heading (i.e. a radar straight ahead displayed at the top of the circle, directly behind at the bottom, etc.). The distance from the center of the circle, depending on the type of unit, can represent the estimated distance from the generating radar, or to categorize the severity of threats to the aircraft, with tracking radars placed closer to the center than search radars. The symbol itself is related to the type of radar or the type of vehicle that carries it, often with a distinction made between ground-based radars and airborne radars.
The typical airborne RWR system consists of multiple wideband antennas placed around the aircraft which receive the radar signals. The receiver periodically scans across the frequency band and determines various parameters of the received signals, like frequency, signal shape, direction of arrival, pulse repetition frequency, etc. By using these measurements, the signals are first deinterleaved to sort the mixture of incoming signals by emitter type. These data are then further sorted by threat priority and displayed.
The RWR is used for identifying, avoiding, evading or engaging threats. For example, a fighter aircraft on a combat air patrol (CAP) might notice enemy fighters on the RWR and subsequently use its own radar set to find and eventually engage the threat. In addition, the RWR helps identify and classify threats—it's hard to tell which blips on a radar console-screen are dangerous, but since different fighter aircraft typically have different types of radar sets, once they turn them on and point them near the aircraft in question it may be able to tell, by the direction and strength of the signal, which of the blips is which type of fighter.
A non-combat aircraft, or one attempting to avoid engagements, might turn its own radar off and attempt to steer around threats detected on the RWR. Especially at high altitude (more than 30,000 feet AGL), very few threats exist that don't emit radiation. As long as the pilot is careful to check for aircraft that might try to sneak up without radar, say with the assistance of AWACS or GCI, it should be able to steer clear of SAMs, fighter aircraft and high altitude, radar-directed AAA.