Pierre Sprey and the Fighter Mafia got it wrong.

In this post, I damned Pierre Sprey’s insights into the weapons development, particularly in aircraft.

Sprey was a part of the Fighter Mafia, alongside other notables, such as John Boyd, around whom something of a cult has formed. Indeed, your humble scribe is a member of a Facebook group devoted to Boyd and his theories.

But it is important to remember that while the Fighter Mafia had an outsized influence on the development of what would become the F-15, F-16, and eventually, the F/A-18, it’s even more important to remember that those three aircraft are all highly successful largely in spite of the Fighter Mafia, not because of them.

In the mid to late 1960s, appalled by the poor air to air combat record of the Air Force in Vietnam, the Fighter Mafia used Boyd’s E/M theory to argue successfully that the envisioned replacement for the F-4 Phantom should focus on maneuverability.

Eventually, that replacement became the F-15 Eagle, which, to be sure, is a highly maneuverable fighter. But the Fighter Mafia hated it. It’s a big, big fighter. Two primary factors led to its large size. First, fuel. For long range, you need a huge fuel fraction- that is, the percentage of gross take off weight dedicated to fuel. But the more fuel you carry, the more power you need to maintain performance and maneuverability. And of course, you get more power from bigger engines. Which need more fuel… The second factor driving the size of the Eagle was the radar. Radar range is largely a function of antenna array size. To achieve longer detection ranges, you need a larger array. The size of the antenna array ultimately has a large influence on the aerodynamic design of the rest of the aircraft. That is, a big radar results in a big airplane.

The Fighter Mafia also hated that the Eagle’s primary weapon was a quartet of AIM-7 Sparrow III missiles. To be sure, the Eagle also carried four AIM-9 Sidewinders, and an M61A1 20mm Vulcan cannon, in effect, the same armament as the late model F-4E it was to replace. The Fighter Mafia loathed the very idea of the Sparrow missile, with its heavy weight, required heavy radar, and the complexity and cost it imposed on the airplane. The rest of the Air Force, however, saw the Sparrow as the main battery, and the other weapons were just along for the ride, as they imposed a minimal penalty in weight and performance. The Eagle with its huge radar and beyond-visual-range, all aspect Sparrows would knock down MiGs long before the MiGs had a chance to maneuver against the Eagles. The Fighter Mafia did win some battles in the design of the Eagle- “Not a pound for Air to Ground” being one.

Overall the Eagle was the antithesis of what the Fighter Mafia sought in a new plane. They wanted, in effect, to out MiG-21 the MiG-21. They saw the perfect fighter as a lightweight, single engine plane armed with two Sidewinders, a cannon, and a simple radar along the lines of the APQ-153 for cueing the Sidewinders and gun-laying.

The Fighter Mafia also realized the cost of the Eagle would preclude the Air Force from buying nearly as many jets as they had F-4s to replace. And so, through some bureaucratic slight of hand, they convinced the DoD to open up a procurement program for what became the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program.

Eventually, two prototypes would emerge from LWF, the General Dynamics YF-16, and the Northrop YF-17. At first glance, the Fighter Mafia would appear to have won. Both were small, very lightweight (well, compared to an Eagle), armed with Sidewinders and a gun, and with minimal radar.

Pierre Sprey did have a major influence at about this time. He was the driving force behind the competitive fly-off between the two prototypes.  At his insistence, the fly-off was conducted by operational test pilots, not engineering test pilots. That is, rather than pilots with a focus on ensuring the plane would meet some esoteric numerical data point, they wanted pilots who would evaluate the plane in terms of their experience with actual combat flying. Additionally, the test pilots would fly both types, giving them the opportunity to compare and contrast both. Both the objective data, and the subjective impressions of the pilots would influence the selection. In the end, the YF-16 won out.  The YF-17, after a major redesign effort, would be emerge as the F/A-18 Hornet now used by the Navy and Marine Corps.

While the YF-16 was almost exactly what the Fighter Mafia sought, the Air Force wasn’t entirely happy with it. Changes between the YF-16 and the production F-16A were extensive.

The Fighter Mafia saw the F-16 as the ne plus ultra of air to air combat. But the Air Force didn’t see much point to a second air to air fighter competing for budget dollars with the F-15 Eagle. What they did see a pressing need for was a light fighter bomber to replace hundreds of F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, and A-7D Corsairs. And so they gave the F-16 a significant air to ground capability. Additionally, advances in electronics and computing technology lead the Air Force to give the F-16 the APG-66  multi-function radar for both air and surface search, and air to air and air to ground weapons aiming. A few years later, the F-16C model began to enter service, and with it came the ability to use the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air to Air Missile, or AMRAAM. Where the Fighter Mafia envisioned an F-16 entering combat with no more external stores than a pair of Sidewinders, today an F-16 in combat typically carries two AMRAAMs, two Sidewinders, two to four Laser Guided Bombs, two 370 gallon drop tanks, and a jammer pod. To say the Fighting Falcon has strayed from the ideal of the Fighter Mafia is something of an understatement.

So where did the Fighter Mafia go wrong? They carefully analyzed the shortcomings of US airpower in air to air combat in Vietnam, and had a very plausible theory (E/M) that showed the way to overcome those failures.

The Fighter Mafia’s mistake was a failure to realize that many of the problems the US faced in Vietnam would be overcome by technology, much of it not directly related to the fighter aircraft themselves. Other issues were political or doctrinal, and would be overcome by training.

For instance, much of the bad reputation of the F-4 Phantom in combat was related to the early, all missile armed C and D models. Especially early in the war when they were equipped with the early AIM-7D model Sparrow, coupled with a requirement that all targets be visually identified, that poor air to air reputation was somewhat valid. But by the end of the Vietnam conflict, the vastly improved AIM-7E2 Sparrow was much more reliable, and a much better missile from a tactical point of view. Coupled with that technical improvement was early work on what we would today call Non-Cooperative Threat Recognition allowed US aircrews to begin using the Sparrow in the way it was intended, yielding much better results. Looking at the highest scoring ace of the Vietnam War, Chuck DeBellevue, we see that four of his six kills were with the radar guided Sparrow, and only two with the Sidewinder.

Similarly, the ability of airborne warning and control to definitively designate potential targets as hostile was on the cusp of being when the Fighter Mafia was arguing for a fighter that would, by design, be forced to merge to visual range with the enemy. The old EC-121 radar planes were being replaced by the vastly more capable E-3A Sentry.

Vastly improved training in air to air combat maneuvering also greatly changed the performance of US aircrews. Early failures in Vietnam were not mere
ly a symptom of poor airframe design. Instead, prior to Vietnam, a very large percentage of the training time was spent on the tactical nuclear strike mission, as well as conventional air to ground training. Little thought was given to realistic air combat maneuvering. All these factors gave an unrealistic impression of the inability of the platforms such as the F-4 to succeed in the air superiority mission.

With continue improvement in missiles, in training, and in command and control measures allowing beyond visual range engagements, we’ve actually seen the virtual disappearance of the swirling dogfight the Fighter Mafia insisted the F-16 be built for. Looking at US Air Force air to air victories after Vietnam, the vast majority have been made with the long range Sparrow or the AMRAAM. Very few fights involved more than one sustained turn. Instead, the most common Eagle tactic is referred to as The Wall, with four Eagles line abreast using their powerful radars and Sparrows/AMRAAMs to sweep aside enemy fighters with “in your face” shots.

One of the prime drivers in the design of the F-22A Raptor was the need for very high, very fast flight because that high/fast combination gives a missile an even greater standoff range than one launched lower and slower.

And it is not just the US that increasingly saw that the long range standoff attack was the future. The Soviet MiG-29 and Su-27 were both primarily armed with the  R-27 (NATO reporting name AA-10 Alamo) and later the R-77 (NATO reporting name AA-12 Adder) long range radar guided missiles. European nations use either the AMRAAM or a variety of similar long range missiles. Had the F-16 become the Fighter Mafia wanted, it would be severely handicapped in the face of such BVR capable opponents.

It’s interesting that John Boyd, later famous for his OODA loop, would himself, as a member of the Fighter Mafia, arguably make a grave error in his own OODA loop in justifying his vision of the Lightweight Fighter.



Having observed the poor air to air performance of the Air Force in Vietnam, his orientation led him to mistaken assumptions about what the future of air combat would look like.

8 thoughts on “Pierre Sprey and the Fighter Mafia got it wrong.”

  1. Boggles the mind of a simple maintainer…………………………..of dedicated attack aircraft in my career. The Intruder and Corsair II.

    1. I’ll second that. Interestingly, the author is unequivocal about the superiority of Naval Air, especially F-8 pilots, in the Vietnam era. The USAF was using doctrine and tactics suitable for 1943, not 1968.

  2. Boyd did some very good work. The Boyd cult, however, sees him as some sort of second coming and have not paid attention to the places he was wrong. His basic theories are sound, however. No one has ever been able to visualize the future, and when some revolutionary idea comes along, others adjust and adapt to deal with it.

    The Navy did quite well with the Phantom because they were simply more adaptable than USAF. That still remains the case.

    Brad, if you get the chance to meet the guy formerly known Fliterman at Lex’s old place, he can tell you the full story. He drove F-4s off Midway from Station Yankee and is a TOPGUN grad as well. His observations are educational.

  3. Re-post from FB:
    I can’t concur with the title/premise of this article. As a retelling of how fast mover aviation has progressed since the 60’s, it’s OK, but way too much context is not accounted for. Despite addressing ground attack in his Aerial Attack document, Boyd was an “air-air” guy. When the “next” a/c was being studied the Soviet Union was THE threat, and pure air-air was a capability necessary. In that community, leading into Vietnam, the issue here wasn’t nuclear delivery, it was rather the widely held belief that dogfighting was history and interceptor technology was the need. Boyd was on the side of the fighter pilot vs the “interceptor mentality. Vietnam proved “fighter” a/c and pilots were still necessary. What that need encompassed was the Fighter Mafia battlefield. (Other aspects eventually played into this later but not in the early to middle phases to any extent other than “high tech” sellers and those like McNamara who believed in one a/c for all, i.e., the wonderful F-111)

    But during that time frame a new threat began to impact the fast mover world SAMs- surface to air missiles. And it must be noted, while there are some great stories of Red Baron swash buckeling, Vietnam was an “attack pilot” air war. The AF transitioned from F-105s to F-4s in that role (including CAS down south). Only one base in Thailand was designated to take on air-air. Every fast mover pilot in the AF (even the A-7D Sandy guys) was a fighter pilot in a Tactical Fighter Squadron.

    On the Navy side, it was different. The F-4 was selected to replace a pure air-air F-8 Crusader in VF squadrons. BUT the F-4 could carry bombs and did so. The Navy then had VA squadrons with A-4s, A-7s and A-6s. When that war ended every “attack” guy knew the next a/c needed higher thrust to weight to survive in the SAM environment. There comes in the rub.

    The YF-16/YF-17 fly-off was about Air-air only. The 16 won, but story goes would have had carrier adaptation problems. Navy selected the 17 as the F/A-18 to replace both F-4 and A-7 and thus is born the strike fighter.

    Boyd and company initially won (in AF) based on facing an air-air threat but the powers that be who always wanted multi-role a/c and BVR had way more pull and were willing to spend the money. Boyd and company weren’t wrong based on the threat of the day. In the 70’s and on into the early 80’s no one could have predicted that air-air would take a secondary place.

    On the other hand the AF (with mod to F-16 and development of Strike Eagle) and Navy with F/A-18 created the “strike fighter” concept and context which leads us straight to the F-35.. So how’s that playing out?

    That turn of events in no way reflects on what Boyd was about. All in all the “where ;fighter (air-air) is today” is part of a much bigger picture. There were a lot of people on the agile fighter side and some of them had adifferent view and didn’t agree with Boyd.. It is really unfair to him, given all he contributed – even before OODA stuff – to claim he was wrong.

    1. I am no expert, but I think the point is that Vietnam did not necessarily prove the need for lightweight fighters. Had we used more effective long range missiles than were sparrows, and ROE that authorized their use at beyond visual range (as we consistently have since then), we may not have had to close to lightweight fighter ranges to kill at all. Granted, I am not arguing for this, and were I an attack pilot I would want a lightweight fighter MIGCAP close at hand during the mission. But if every MIG that rolled down the runway at Kep was immediately shot down by a fighter loitering 20 miles away, I will call it good.

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