How this SOCOM aircraft-mod specialist uses data to break vendor lock

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SNC is committed to strengthening its position as a global leader in aviation and national security, providing innovative solutions to America’s largest aviation projects in the birthplace of aviation, Dayton, OH. Photo courtesy of SNC.

Having the bandwidth to perform sophisticated post-production modifications to large military aircraft like the C-130J is key to mission performance for Defense Department organizations and special operators. Few companies have expanded faster to meet those demands than Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

In this Q&A with Brady Hauboldt, vice president, Aviation Strategic Plans & Programs for SNC’s ISR, Aviation & Security (IAS) business area, he discusses how the company is using modern, digital engineering practices to help customers save money and break vendor lock to create open architecture data packages and upgrade existing assets to current mission requirements.

Breaking Defense: Describe the threat environment as it relates to the types of aircraft modifications and capabilities needed by Special Operations Forces (SOF), as well as the larger defense community?

Hauboldt: While the drawdown in Central Command has reduced SOF footprint in that region, the demand for SOF has not declined and will not go away. Special-ops warriors still need eyes-on ISR, mobility, and armed overwatch no matter where they operate. SOF is also transforming to a different concept of operations that demands reconfiguration, greater mission flexibility, and diverse tools for use against an ever-greater range of opposition capabilities – across domains.

It’s the same for the US Department of Defense as a whole, particularly with an increasing probability of future operations in the INDOPACOM region.

Breaking Defense: What are the aircraft modifications and integrations for which you’re experiencing demand?

Hauboldt: I won’t get into specific requirements, capabilities, or missions, but our customers value quality over quantity, as well as speed-to-ramp and the flexibility that I mentioned. Like our SOF customers, SNC values innovation, flexibility, technology and speed. These are precisely the attributes that SOF prizes to accomplish its mission. By creating a separation layer, our aircraft and technology meet SOF needs better than anyone.

That’s what SNC brings — a culture that values customer relationships, as well as on-time, on-cost deliveries that can rapidly build capability and deliver it to the battlefield. Sometimes that’s an incremental approach, as we deliver what’s needed now with flexibility and scalability for the future.

As SNC has moved into new areas like multi-domain operations for our SOF customers, we’ve developed new capabilities in areas like podded systems and cybersecurity. We’ve also grown the complexity of our engineered solutions for the customer.

Most recently, we were awarded the airborne mission networking (AbMN) contract for the MC-130J and the AC/MC-130J Radio Frequency Countermeasures (RFCM) program for USSOCOM. We’re also doing work for the Navy, the Marine Corps and other customers, including providing maritime surveillance in US Southern Command and Customs and Border Protection.

Every one of the aircraft we provide those customers has unique requirements and we’ve continually delivered modifications and integrated best-of-breed solutions to meet their demands and high expectations.

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SNC is well known as an expert in the design, mission integration and modification of all types of aircraft including the C-130. Several of SNC’s aircraft hangars are large enough to house four C-130s simultaneously. Photo courtesy of SNC.

Breaking Defense: You mentioned the RFCM program, and earlier this year SNC delivered the first RFCM-integrated AC-130J to USSOCOM. Tell me more about that.

Hauboldt: The RFCM award in 2020 was a significant turning point in our company’s growth. It reflects how we’re bringing our culture and capabilities into increasingly competitive markets where customers can no longer rely on sole-source or one-off contracts.

To provide best-value and win contracts in a broader market against aircraft OEMs, we have developed cutting-edge digital tools and integrated practices to generate the data necessary to engineer and certify modifications on any aircraft. That’s pretty profound because most aircraft today are delivered to the customer without technical data packages. This  means we’ve been able to break vendor lock, save money, and increase the data provided to the customer that they may not have had previously in the digital world. SNC today has the ability to develop a Technical Data Package post-production, without any OEM support.

The technology applies readily to any aircraft produced by any OEM, and since 2020 we’ve been doing similar modifications on many other commercial and military aircraft.

Breaking Defense: Let’s move on to SNC’s depot-level modification and repair operations. Please provide an overview of your operations, locations, specialties, capabilities?

Hauboldt: Over the past five years, SNC’s growth has been remarkable. Our roots started at the Centennial Airport southeast of downtown Denver. Today we have 10 hangers there and ran out of space to handle aircraft like the C-130 and larger. We needed to expand so we established a second base of operations in Colorado Springs, which is a very large facility that shares space with Peterson Space Force Base.

We’ve built hangars almost every year over the last five years and keep them full. Today we have four hangars and roughly 180,000 square feet of manufacturing, modification and repair space in  Colorado Springs. It’s also, frankly, full, so this year we broke ground on the first of two new IAS hangars outside the state of Colorado in Dayton, Ohio.

At 90,000 square feet, this first Dayton hangar will enable us to transition our SOF and digital practices into the very large aircraft market, up to and including B-52s, C-17s, KC-46s, and C-5s and 747s. As I mentioned, our digital engineering toolsets scale easily from small to big, commercial to military, enabling us to offer post-production engineering, integration, certification and modification to the entire aviation market — commercial or defense.

The value of breaking vendor lock through competition is something that I know all defense customers are hungry for, and now we have even more opportunity to capitalize upon that.

Breaking Defense: Who do you compete against: other commercial companies or military depots?

Hauboldt: SNC offers an alternative to the OEMs in nearly every corner of the commercial and military aviation post-production market, although we do tend to be very much defense-customer oriented. Commercial aircraft manufacturers simply are not the best at post-production modification. Some have established defense-business units that attempt to modify their commercial counterparts’ aircraft and SNC has proven to out-perform and out-deliver.

While we don’t compete directly against the military depots, the same tools we use to modify aircraft can also be applied to developing repair instructions. When developed under contract, we then offer those data packages directly to the government for use on military depot lines — whether for modification or repair. Our strategic goal is a partnership with the defense depots and program offices.

SNC’s approach to aircraft survivability emphasizes full-platform integration leveraging platform datalinks, integrated processing, and common tactical display systems. (SNC photo)

Breaking Defense: SNC also considers itself a leader in C-130J modifications. Tell me about that.

Hauboldt: For C-130J post-production modifications, we sometimes work in partnership with the OEM, sometimes as a competitor. Ultimately, we strive to offer our customers the best-value approach for C-130J upgrades. Over the past few years, we’ve modified dozens of C-130s for USSOCOM, US Air Force, and Navy customers. We’re starting to grow our support to our international partners and allies, as well.

Our data models on the C-130J today are second to none — and in many cases are filling in gaps in OEM data. It’s enabling us to continue to increase our share of development and modification work. As such, I believe we are the world leader in C-130J modifications.

Breaking Defense: You say you do your MRO work without OEM data. What’s the significance of that and what does it mean for the warfighter?

Hauboldt: SNC certainly is glad to work with OEMs and use all available data when possible, it’s just that we also have the tools to fill in gaps when that data isn’t available — or the OEM is unwilling to participate. Many times we’ve found that even OEMs don’t have all the data they need to perform the modification.

That’s what makes us different in our support to the warfighter; we give them options. When we generate that data it becomes the property of the customer. This enables them to break vendor lock. Permanently. It also enables future competitions and ultimately reduces life cycle costs. The defense market no longer has to rely on OEM Technical Data Packages. That’s a profound capability enabled by modern digital tools that was not available in the 20th century.

SNC brings a capability that is new, sets us apart, and enables the customer to do the necessary engineering to achieve the capability and data rights that, previously, didn’t exist.

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