There has been much talk in defense circles of late about the need to tap “non-traditional” contractors for warfighting innovations.
A similar sentiment has taken hold at NASA, with the emphasis on turning to commercial space enterprises that are not captives of the federal bureaucracy.
Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation has been a beneficiary of the search for new suppliers at the defense and space agencies, in part because it has demonstrated a willingness to invest its own money in developing novel solutions to national challenges.
The company, which prefers to be known as SNC to distinguish itself from the well-known brewer, is a privately-held enterprise run by a husband-and-wife team from Turkey.
Eren and Fatih Ozmen came to the Reno area in the 1980s, Eren to earn an MBA at the University of Nevada, Fatih to pursue a graduate degree in electrical engineering at the same school.
They apparently did not know each other before arriving in America, but as it turned out their respective skills (she in finance, he in engineering) enabled them to become employees of a struggling aerospace concern that they jointly acquired in 1994—using their home as collateral.
Today, the enterprise they built up in subsequent years is a classic American success story that has made the Ozmens billionaires and catapulted them to positions of influence in the industry.
Eren, who owns 51% of SNC’s stock, has been named one of America’s most successful self-made women every year since Forbes initiated its rankings in 2015.
Fatih, who owns the remaining 49%, sits on a National Space Council advisory body, and the company he runs with his wife—she’s the Chairman, he’s the CEO—is the only aerospace business that Deloitte ranked as one of the best managed private companies in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021.
I have observed the company’s progress for many years, both from the vantage point of a think tank to which they contribute, and as a consultant who advises SNC and several of their competitors.
Because SNC is privately held, it is not required to disclose financial results the way a publicly traded business would be.
One indication of its size, though, is provided by the Defense News annual rankings of the world’s top military contractors; in 2021 it estimated that SNC defense revenues were $1.9 billion and total revenues $2.4 billion.
That made SNC the 53rd biggest military contractor in the world in 2021.
Much of the Ozmens’ success can be traced to hard work and discipline, but in addition the couple has leveraged their ownership of the enterprise to fashion a business culture that regularly takes major risks in pursuit of new opportunities.
As one executive put it to me, SNC is able to play the long game because it is not subject to the quarterly performance assessments of shareholders.
So SNC dedicates a sizable share of its revenues to internal R&D, and periodically acquires other technology enterprises that occupy critical niches in its addressed markets.
The company is perhaps best known for its Dream Chaser spaceplane, a vehicle developed jointly with NASA that unlike other spacecraft is a lifting body—which means upon returning to Earth it can land at any airport with a 10,000-foot runway.
SNC has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into developing Dream Chaser, and was rewarded with a contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
The company’s space unit, which was spun off as an independent commercial company last year valued at $4.5 billion, also has developed a modular space habitat in conjunction with Blue Origin and others that can ease the challenge of supporting humans in space.
Called the Large Integrated Flexible Environment, or LIFE, the habitat has one-third the internal volume of the space station but only inflates after launch, so that it is much easier to orbit than the space station was (the Economist calls the International Space Station “the most expensive object ever made”).
LIFE modules can be assembled into an orbital habitat bigger than the existing space station, thus making the SNC product a potential successor when the aging station is retired later in the decade.
Both products figure prominently in the Ozmen vision of mankind’s future in space; as an internal email put it last year, “We envision a vibrant low-Earth orbit economy with fleets of Dream Chaser spaceplanes, a commercial space station, expandable LIFE habitats that can travel to the moon and Mars, and critical infrastructure like power generation, propulsion and environmental systems.”
On the defense side, SNC has pioneered a series of breakthrough concepts using its own money that are responsive to emerging challenges faced by the military.
One such system is TRAX, a software suite that allows disparate data formats and seemingly incompatible systems to communicate with each other across multiple warfighting domains.
Another such system called RAPCON-X delivers a high-endurance airborne intelligence and reconnaissance jet that supports Army long-range fires in places like the Western Pacific and is easily reconfigurable depending on the mission.
SNC is the only U.S. company offering a comprehensive, multi-spectral solution enabling military pilots to penetrate the “fog of war” created by inclement weather and manmade obscurants so that they can safely maneuver in degraded visual environments.
Each of these innovations, and many more, were developed using SNC revenues to solve critical challenges faced by U.S. warfighters—challenges that have grown more demanding as national defense strategy shifted to a focus on near-peer threats.
With capabilities spanning a broad spectrum of aerospace and electronic competencies, SNC has positioned itself to compete against much larger companies in pursuit of emerging missions and requirements.
It is not averse to teaming with such companies, but the Ozmens have fashioned SNC to be different from other defense enterprises—more agile, more imaginative, more cost-effective.
Whatever else you might say about the company’s business culture, it is nobody’s idea of a traditional aerospace and defense enterprise.