This year marks the 60th year since Sierra Nevada Corporation was founded in 1963 at the Reno, Nevada airport as a small aircraft engineering firm. The company, which today prefers to call itself SNC, stayed small for 30 years.
Then, in 1994, it was bought out by Eren and Fatih Ozmen, a Turkish couple that originally came to America with modest resources to earn graduate degrees. The Ozmens have gradually positioned SNC as the Pentagon’s most unusual supplier of high-tech solutions for warfighting challenges.
The company sometimes describes itself as a “unicorn,” and it certainly bears little resemblance to other players in the defense field. SNC contributes to my think tank.
The Ozmens—she the Chairwoman, he the CEO—have fashioned their enterprise as a market disruptor that habitually challenges bigger contractors with solutions designed to be more innovative and affordable. Among their recent achievements:
- A popular software application called TRAX that enables warfighters with incompatible communications devices to share information across previously insurmountable technical and organizational barriers.
- A wide-area surveillance system mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles called Gorgon Stare that enables a single aircraft to capture tactically useful motion imagery across an entire city.
- A Digital Data Package offering that enables the government customer to precisely characterize the technical features of military aircraft without depending on intellectual property owned by the original equipment manufacturer.
- A family of electronic intelligence systems that has enabled SNC to become the top supplier of such technology to the Department of Defense.
The success of these and other projects has made the Ozmens billionaires, but it has not made them complacent. As the company piled up competitive wins, it gradually moved up market—transitioning from the modification of turboprops to jets and broadening its capabilities through 20 acquisitions of other tech enterprises.
It also became a big player in civil space. In 2021, though, the Ozmens elected to spin off Sierra Space, so that SNC could strengthen its focus on defense and other security-related markets.
SNC today remains, as it has been for many years, the Pentagon’s biggest privately-held, woman-owned supplier—a mid-size company amidst a fraternity of giant defense conglomerates.
SNC currently has 5,000 employees and operates at over 40 locations around the world. Its capabilities are focused in three areas: aircraft modification and integration, sensor collection and analysis, and exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The company’s work in these three overlapping areas typically involves the combination of complex hardware and software, but always within the framework of modular, open architectures that permit the federal customer to avoid “vendor lock” due to overreliance on a supplier’s control of intellectual property.
SNC sometimes teams with other defense players such as the Collins Aerospace unit of RTX, but it retains the culture of an industry outsider. The Ozmens spend generously from company coffers in pursuit of new ideas, unfettered by the need to pay dividends to shareholders.
The company likes to say it is small enough to be agile but big enough to compete with industry leaders, a proposition that will be tested in the years ahead by two big competitions.
High Altitude Detection and Exploitation System. HADES
It will be a far more capable system than the overburdened Guardrail, integrating diverse sensors that operate from altitudes well above where legacy turboprops and drones do. The higher altitude enables the plane to look deeper, while the onboard technologies facilitate more detailed characterization of what sensors detect.
To win the HADES contest, SNC must beat offerings from Leidos
Survivable Airborne Operations Center. SAOC is the Air Force’s replacement for its aging Nightwatch nuclear command post aircraft, sometimes called the Doomsday planes. Their role is to provide resilient control of land-based nuclear forces in the event of a strategic exchange. The Navy is developing its own next-gen aircraft to control nuclear forces at sea, and SNC intends to play in both competitions.
SAOC is an especially ambitious undertaking for the company because it wants to be prime contractor on the extensive modification of 8-10 Boeing
Although SNC has developed modifications for 300 different types of aircraft, SAOC presents an unprecedented level of complexity for the company. It is emblematic of the Ozmens’ determination to position their enterprise at the top tier of military aerospace contractors.
In the past, the Pentagon’s reflex would have been to assume that the original equipment manufacturer, in this case Boeing, was the sole qualified source for such a complicated integration challenge. Aviation Week on August 30 described SNC’s entry into the competition as an “underdog bid,” but the company has always been a disruptor that took on the established order in aerospace.
So, in a sense, SAOC is just the logical next step for the Ozmens. Having proven what they can accomplish across an array of other demanding missions, they are now bidding to play in the most critical mission of all—the deterrence of nuclear war.
Win or lose, they have cemented their reputation as among the most daring aerospace innovators that this generation of entrepreneurs has produced.
As noted above, SNC contributes to my think tank—as do several of its competitors.