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Tinker and the Primes: AFLCMC Propulsion director discusses alliances, innovation

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John Sneden, director of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Propulsion Directorate, addresses attendees at the Tinker and the Primes Conference, Aug. 11, 2021. His remarks were centered on Propulsion: Acceleration through Alliances and Innovation. (Air Force photo by Ron Mullan)

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. --

The Midwest City Chamber of Commerce and Rose State College hosted the 15th Annual Tinker and the Primes Conference at the Reed Center in Midwest City, Oklahoma, Aug. 10-12, 2021. The theme for this year’s conference is “Leveraging Partnerships to Accelerate Change.”

In keeping with the theme, John Sneden, director of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Propulsion Directorate spoke on “Propulsion: Acceleration through Alliances and Innovation.”

Sneden provided an overview of the Propulsion Directorate’s mission and addressed Propulsion Enterprise challenges and how the directorate is using strategic alliances to drive innovative solutions and accelerate change. 

“I’m excited to be here with you to talk about the Propulsion Directorate and share some key areas where you can help in our mission to deliver ready, affordable, safe, and effective engines to our warfighter customers,” said Sneden. “In the Propulsion Directorate, we take pride in generating the sound of freedom 24/7/365, and we couldn’t do that without our industry partners.”

He then walked the conference attendees through the mission, focus areas, and portfolio of the Propulsion Directorate, highlighting current challenges and associated areas where industry’s help is needed to maintain the warfighter’s edge and ensure we stay ahead of our near-peer competitors. His message was both serious and urgent.  Furthermore, he challenged industry and government stakeholders to reimagine how propulsion systems are acquired, fielded, and sustained, specifically citing the need to drastically shorten the current 10-15 year development timeline for new propulsion systems.

From cradle to grave, the Propulsion Directorate is the Center of Excellence for all things propulsion. The enterprise encompasses a vast portfolio comprised of 39 engine systems valued at nearly $60B in support of 10 major commands and 50 international partners.

“From designing the Air Force’s next generation of engines, to sustaining legacy systems produced in the 1950s, our team of over 600 multi-functional professionals provide seamless, global support to our warfighters,” Sneden said.

He went on to say that the Propulsion portfolio would not be what it is without a focused mission and vision that sync to national priorities. “Our mission is to deliver ready, affordable, safe, and effective propulsion solutions and innovative capabilities to our Air Force and Foreign Military Sales customers. The Propulsion Directorate’s vision is to be the partner of choice for revolutionizing war-winning propulsion capabilities and delivering agile solutions while providing the warfighter’s edge.”

Sneden then explained that there were five focus areas that provide the foundation for the directorate’s Mission and Vision: efficient and effective lifecycle leadership; unified culture of propulsion experts; affordable propulsion systems; a responsive and capable industrial base; and an accelerated and enduring propulsion advantage.

“Overall, our mission, vision, and focus areas tie all the way from the national defense strategy to the priorities found at the Air Force, Air Force Materiel Command, and AFLCMC levels,” said Sneden.

The Propulsion Directorate embraced Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. CQ Brown Jr.’s action orders and his “Accelerate Change or Lose” mantra.  Mr. Sneden quoted Brown when he said, “Good enough today will cause us to fail tomorrow.”  Then, he explained the developmental and investment decline across the Propulsion Enterprise over the last 20 years and his associated concerns. 

“There is a drastic developmental decline that started in the 1990s and continues through present times. Only seven of the 39 systems we lead were developed after 1995. Further, new platforms, like the T-7A and F-15EX, are using legacy engine technology rooted in the 70s and 80s in lieu of a new engine or evolving a legacy engine to meet new platform needs," Sneden said. "What does this mean? It means our development and production know-how doesn’t get used enough to be fully responsive to our warfighter needs. This correlates to high costs; long lead times with new systems taking 10+ years to develop and field; and most concerning, an industrial base that isn’t poised to meet our warfighter’s emerging needs. Innovation is needed on this front to accelerate change, and a vital way to get there is a digital transformation that not only integrates and speeds our development activities but horizontally integrates the supply chain.”

Sneden identified areas where the Propulsion Directorate needs immediate help from industry to overcome significant obstacles and put war-winning capabilities in the hands of the warfighter.

“The areas where we need your immediate assistance,” he said, “are Digital Transformation, Additive Manufacturing, Digital Engine Controls, and Small Engine development.”

Sneden wrapped up his presentation by highlighting the success of the Propulsion Consortium Initiative which leverages other transaction authorities to rapidly prototype emerging technologies and capabilities, as well as grow the propulsion industrial base. “This Consortium has been widely successful in providing an avenue for rapid partnering. Together, we’ve driven needed outcomes in the 200lb thrust class engines, B-52 commercial engine integration prototyping, additively cooled rotors, F107 component repair, TF33 commercial overhaul, and non-destructive inspections.  Thank you all for the outstanding work on these fronts,” said Sneden. 

In closing, he welcomed feedback from the audience on how to best structure the follow-on vehicle to address “our goals of encouraging non-traditional vendor participation, driving a paradigm shift through a digital transformation; expanding our manufacturing, inspection and small engine capabilities; and implementing performance improvements of propulsion technologies.”