Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Underdog Bid For The Next U.S. ‘Doomsday Plane’
An underdog bid by a midsize private company to take on America’s aircraft and defense giants is starting to take shape in a sparkling new hangar in a desolate corner of the Dayton, Ohio, airport complex.
Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) recently cut the ribbon on this 90,000-ft.2 maintenance, repair and overhaul hangar, one of four with a separate 120,000-ft.2 paint facility that the company is planning. The construction is part of a self-funded bid for what would certainly be one of the company’s biggest programs, if SNC can pull it off: The U.S. Air Force’s Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC). The program has a development budget of more than $8 billion over the next five years to replace the Air Force’s aging Boeing 747-based E-4B Nightwatch fleet, also known as the Doomsday Plane.
- E-4B replacement likely to come from used 747 market
- Air Force expects early 2024 award
The idiosyncratic Sparks, Nevada-based company has outgrown existing large-aircraft facilities in Colorado and has tapped the Dayton market for its biggest complex. That is also a likely site for the company’s work on the U.S. Navy’s E/A-XX Take Charge and Move Out (Tacamo) program, for which it has teamed with Collins Aerospace to compete as a subcontractor. For the SAOC, SNC is competing as a prime.
“SNC continues to see tremendous growth on the horizon at a time when most of our competitors are shrinking or merging,” the company says in a statement. “That makes SNC a bit of a unicorn in the aerospace and defense sector as not only a midtier contractor, but as the No. 1 privately held defense contractor in the business. This unique role as one of the few remaining midtier companies allows us to remain competitive with our speed and agility. We are small enough to be agile, but large enough to succeed with a highly skilled, motivated workforce.
“Because of this,” the statement continues, “SNC is proud to announce that we have responded to the SAOC contract as a prime and have submitted a high-value, competing proposal to the USAF.”
The SAOC’s role is the next generation of the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, providing top military leaders with a survivable aircraft to ensure the National Military Command System can direct military forces and execute emergency war orders, including nuclear command and control, in case of a nuclear war. The commercial derivative aircraft needs to be hardened against nuclear and electromagnetic effects, as well as having an aerial refueling capability to extend its time aloft.
Under the acquisition strategy, the engineering and manufacturing development contract winner would be required to buy the aircraft and bring them to a common configuration, along with providing required ground support.
SNC could be seen as a dark horse in the competition that might more than double the Air Force’s existing fleet of four aircraft. Although the SAOC program is largely classified and the names of competitors kept under wraps, defense giant and OEM Boeing says it responded to the Air Force’s request for proposals and identified its own low-hour aircraft to meet the need. Boeing is doing similar work under the Air Force’s VC-25B Presidential Airlift Replacement program, replacing the older VC-25A Air Force One aircraft with newer, used 747-8s.
While SNC has not provided specifics, it says it has picked its aircraft for the program, adding that “the USAF values quality at a low life-cost for the SAOC program.”
The Dayton complex is designed to accommodate 747-8s. SNC specializes in data and communication modifications to existing aircraft, largely working within the Air Force’s Big Safari outfit at nearby Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Over its 60-year existence, the company has done post-production modifications without relying on OEM data that manufacturers may be reluctant to provide or only hand over at a high cost.
“That really sets us apart in the industry,” the company states. “We create a digital data package, which is then shared with the government in full. This empowers the customer and significantly reduces life-cycle sustainment and modification costs through competition.”
The company has drawn on in-service U.S. Air Force aircraft and leased jets to conduct in-depth scans—including using spectrographic and radio-frequency analysis—to create the data packages. These include Boeing 747s, 767s, C-17s and KC-135s as well as Lockheed Martin C-130Js and C-5s.
In early July, SNC’s operational approach was put to the test. An Air Mobility Command (AMC) C-17 took off from NAS Oceana, Virginia, and landed more than 24 hr. later at Kadena AB, Japan.
On board was the company’s new Airlift/Tanker Open Mission Systems (ATOMS) kit. Five months earlier, SNC started developing it by scanning two C-17s, a C-130J and a KC-135 to fit the kit, which largely uses existing antennas and cables attached throughout the aircraft connected to what looks like a small server rack in a box, inside the cargo bay. ATOMS provides line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight data connections using networks such as Link 16, Tactical Targeting Network Technology and the Mobile Ad-hoc Network so the mobility aircraft has more real-time situational awareness, including access to the Space Force’s Unified Data Library.
“In the case of ATOMS, the USAF urgently needed a low-risk solution to interconnectivity over the vast Pacific Ocean and across multiple different aircraft types,” the company says. “SNC delivered in just five months from contract award to Mobility Guardian 2023 [an Air Force exercise] this summer.”
AMC commander Gen. Mike Minihan told Aviation Week during Mobility Guardian that he had seen the installation of ATOMS at Dayton and cited both ATOMS and another ongoing program the command is using to increase connectivity through cockpit modernizations as “a classic example . . . to get after that connectivity.”
“This pounding drum of connectivity in the mobility fleet is paramount,” Minihan said. “If I have to key my mic to know what’s going on, then we are condemned to an old architecture of employing airpower, especially when it comes to cargo.”
For the SAOC, the Air Force wants to move quickly. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Aviation Week shortly before budget plans were announced in the spring that the service does not have time for a development program, as the E-4B fleet is approaching the end of its reasonable life span.
“I think we have to take something that’s a commercial derivative,” he said.
As with the VC-25B program, speculation has centered on Boeing’s 747-8. With the production line shut down early this year, the service will need to look at the used market as airlines move away from four-engine aircraft.
The service left the option open to companies to decide what to offer.
“The U.S. Air Force has finalized the SAOC requirements and acquisition strategy and is progressing toward a competitive contract award in early calendar year 2024,” the service says in a June statement. “Industry partners will determine and provide bids presenting their preferred solution to meet SAOC requirements.”
While it is officially open, requirements appear to solidly prefer four engines. Since the Air Force is unlikely to support purchasing European-built Airbus A380s, the 747-8s appear the most likely option.
During a visit to the E-4B operating location in Nebraska, the group’s commander emphasized the need for four engines. Col. Brian Golden, then commander of the 595th Command and Control Group, said the Nightwatch role requires enough power for the nuclear command role, communications and security, along with essential redundancies.
The Air Force plans to buy 8-10 aircraft for the SAOC fleet to keep the Nightwatch role going after the E-4B, although that could grow. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told Aviation Week in June that he is urging lawmakers to return the Air Force to the “Looking Glass” mission. The Cold War-era practice of flying the nuclear command post 24/7 could require a larger fleet.
“With hypersonics, you may have a 15-min. warning time. That’s not enough time to get a jet off reliably, in my view,” Bacon says. “So you’re better off having a 24/7 capacity. Why? Because you want the Russians and the Chinese to know that no matter what they do, we can strike back. And so I think it’s important for deterrence.”
The service is looking to increase spending for the SAOC this year, with $888 billion as part of its fiscal 2024 request. That amount will more than double in fiscal 2025 after the contract award, and spending would be slated to reach $8.1 billion over the next five years.