Farnborough Air Show

Diverse And Growing Cobham Quietly Contributes To Major Aircraft Programs

 - July 9, 2012, 1:10 AM

Operating as a Tier Two and Three supplier of components and subsystems to major aerospace and defense manufacturers, the UK-based Cobham group has evolved over eight decades into a company generating almost $3 billion per year in revenues. The multinational group now has content on most major aircraft platforms either flying or in development.

Nevertheless, one will not generally see the Cobham name emblazoned on an aircraft–unless, of course, you were to visit Australia or Papua New Guinea, where Cobham Aviation Services operates a charter service using BAe 146 jets and Bombardier Dash 8 turboprops. In addition, Cobham operates Boeing 717 twinjets on behalf of the Qantas regional subsidiary QantasLink and maritime patrol Dash 8s for the Australian Customs Service. Elsewhere, the company promotes itself as a trusted supplier of key components across the space, aerospace, land and maritime domains.

“At the top level, it’s products, services and subsystems,” said Greg Caires, Cobham vice president of media relations in the U.S. “We don’t make airplanes, we make things that are very useful to airplanes and other platforms. About two thirds of the business involves moving information from a sensor to a decision maker, and the other third of the business is about keeping people safe in challenging environments.”

Cobham is divided into three divisions–aerospace and security, defense systems and mission systems–that employ 11,000 people on five continents. It has 13 principal manufacturing locations: nine in the U.S., three in the UK and one in France.

The company describes itself as “acquisitive,” having acquired nearly 50 other companies in the last decade and 80 overall, as well as divesting some. Among its strategic objectives is to “build sustainable scale positions” in the markets it serves. “We want to sell products and services that are different enough from our competitors that we maintain a top position in that market space–one, two or three,” said Caires. “If we’re really not one of the top three [companies] you could buy from, then we look to exit that market.”

Cobham says it invested £129 million ($201 million) last year in total research and development in core businesses. It also acquires expertise from other companies. In June, it completed a £275 million ($428 million) share takeover of a competitor, satellite communications equipment provider Thrane & Thrane of Denmark.

While it is UK-based, Cobham generated just 10 percent of its revenue from the UK last year. Fifty-two percent of revenue came from the U.S., followed by Australia at 13 percent. The U.S. defense and security establishments represent 44 percent of Cobham’s business by market type, with commercial business and non-U.S. defense and security each generating 28 percent.

Half of the company’s employees reside in the U.S., followed by 2,500 in the UK and 1,100 in Australia. And this year, Cobham appointed an American–Robert Murphy–as its first non-British CEO. Murphy, who took the reins June 25, previously was executive vice president of the BAE Systems product sectors businesss. He will work from the corporate headquarters in Wimborne, Dorset.

With its many operations and diverse product range–Cobham’s website lists 72 business unit locations and 289 products–it is helpful to think of the company in terms of capabilities, which it says are “increasingly centered around communication and the insatiable need for data, connectivity and bandwidth,” as well as size, weight and power-consumption factors.

It is also instructive to characterize Cobham by the platforms that host its equipment. When described in this way, the company has an impressive story to tell. For example, Cobham supplies its HGA-7001 satcom antenna system and the on board inert gas generating system (Obiggs) to protect against fuel tank explosions on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The company supplies antennas, servers, routers, oxygen systems and audio and radio management systems on the Airbus A380.

In the military arena, Cobham supplies 100 components and $1 million worth of content on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. These include the fifth-generation fighter’s refueling probe, the cryocooler used to cool the infrared detector of its electro-optical targeting system, the pneumatic bomb racks, integrated microwave assemblies supporting electronic warfare systems in the tail and the cartridge actuated cutter, which automatically cuts an air passage in the pilot’s oxygen mask hose when the pilot resurfaces after being submerged in water. Cobham supplies the low-band transmitter and integrated antenna/radome of the U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. It provides external fuel tanks and communications and life-support equipment on the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, and antennas and other components on the Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Gripen, Airbus A400M and Northrop Grumman Global Hawk.

Appropriately, for a company started by Sir Alan Cobham in 1934 as Flight Refueling Ltd., a manufacturer of air-to-air refueling systems, Cobham claims to provide 95 percent of the probe-and-drogue refueling systems in service worldwide, supporting every NATO operation. In July 2011, the company was awarded subcontracts from Boeing to provide hose and drogue systems for the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the new KC-46 refueling tanker. Also last year, the company was selected by Embraer Defense and Security to supply the aerial refueling probe and wing-mounted refueling pods of the new KC-390 transport and tanker.