Category Archives: Air Force

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 merely 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.

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Filed under Air Force, history

The Enforcer

I can’t even count the numbers of times I’ve written about OV-10/A-29/AT-6/various other light COIN/LAARA/LARA/you name it type low cost light attack aircraft.

And virtually ever time I do, either a comment or an email shows up asking “why not the PA-48 Enforcer?”

In the late 1950s, a very small company that eventually became Cavalier Aviation had the bright idea to use surplus P-51 Mustangs as high speed executive transports. Remember, this was well before the idea of a business jet was conceived.  A nice interior and a second seat in a ‘stang seemed like just the  thing a company president would need to travel in style for business. And it wasn’t that wild of an idea. Several other companies were converting light bombers like the A-26 into transports as well.

In the end, only a small number of these Cavalier Mustangs* were converted. As a way of keeping the company busy, Cavalier also refurbished some P-51s in use in South American air forces. Along the way, someone at Cavalier got the bright idea of replacing the Packard built Merlin engine with a Rolls Royce Dart turboprop engine.

The Dart powered conversion, known as  the Enforcer, was quite the performer. And Cavalier wanted to get some USAF contracts. But it really had no chance. Seeking a better suited industrial partner, Cavalier sold the Enforcer design to Piper Aircraft in 1970.

Piper eventually convinced the Air Force to evaluate the renamed PA-48 Enforcer. By this time, the Enforcer was about 90% a new design, with only the slimmest heritage shared with the original P-51. In 1983 and 1984, two Enforcers were evaluated by the Air Force. They weren’t flown by the Air Force. They weren’t bought by the Air Force.  The Air Force just watched Piper put them through their paces, said “that’s pretty cool” and when asked if they wanted to buy some, said “thanks, but no thanks.”

It’s not that the Enforcer was a bad airplane. But in 1984, the Air Force still had in its inventory several hundred OV-10 and A/OA-37 planes. They couldn’t see the point of adding yet another airframe for essentially the same mission.

Four Enforcers were built over the years. And two still exist. One is in the National Museum of the Air Force. The other has just undergone an extensive restoration at the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base.


*Many of which have been restored to their original configuration and are now seen at airshows.


Filed under Air Force, planes

AC-235 Gunship Lite

One of our longstanding frustrations with the way the US purchases airpower is that it has so often sought the comprehensive solution to a perceived problem, and not the 80% solution at 20% cost.  Rather than buying low cost platforms for low threat environments (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) in modest numbers, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps insist on flying their dwindling number of strike fighters. An airframe has a finite number of flying hours available. And they’re being wasted droning over virtually secure airspace. The only push in the US for low cost solutions is coming from the Special Operations community, and they are getting pushback from the mainstream services.

The AC-130U is the definitive gunship conversion of a transport aircraft. But there will only ever be a handful of them. They’re such good aircraft because they are so lavishly equipped. They’re astonishingly expensive. I’ve seen quotes of a flyaway cost of about $190 million dollars!

The C-27J program looked at building a low cost roll-on package for the Spartan to provide top cover.  That dream died when the Air Force smothered the program in its crib.

But the idea of putting some weapons and sensors onto a converted transport has merit. Witness the Marine Corps deployment of C-130J Harvest Hawks.

And other nations are catching on as well. The latest is Jordan. Jordan teamed with ATK to field a conversion of the popular CN-235 light transport into the AC-235 gunship.

That’s actually a pretty robust capability. As Think Defence notes, integrating the APKWS guided 70mm rocket is a no-brainer as well. With very good sensors (the SAR/GMTI radar is quite handy), and presumably a system similar to our ROVER that allows sensor video to be shared with troop units on the ground, the long endurance of an AC-235 allows much more than merely providing supporting fires. The top down view can allow a commander to exercise much better control over his forces, as well as providing a better picture of the enemy.

The US Coast Guard is buying a handful of CN-235s for Search and Rescue. They were going to buy more, but instead they’re taking delivery of a handful of C-27Js that were intended for Army and Air Force use. Would it be so hard for the services to buy a few more and convert them to AC-235s*?

*The  Air Force quietly operates a pair of vanilla CN-235s for unknown purposes. My supposition is they are used to quietly move Special Forces troops around in Africa or other places that operations aren’t secret, but where a discrete footprint is desired.


Filed under Air Force

Nice video, frustrating history

AvGeek shares a very attractive Beechcraft video featuring their armed version of the Texan II trainer.  It’s from last April, but still attractive.

What’s frustrating is that the AT-6C is for foreign buyers. Like the first A-29 Super Tucano delivered to the Air Force (to train foreign buyers), it is a low cost platform. And while the weapons it carries are nice, its ability to carry a powerful sensor package, and loiter overhead would be very nice to have in low intensity theaters.

We’ve long said we didn’t really care who won the LAARA competition. What’s frustrating is that the Air Force has resisted mightily the very idea that such a platform might have a place in the service.

Contrast that with Vietnam, where the Air Force bought and put into service several hundred A-37 Dragonfly light attack variants of the basic T-37 Tweet trainer.


Filed under Air Force

Panetta Jumps Ship


Former SECDEF and CIA Director Leon Panetta has released an excerpt from his memoirs, Worthy Fights, in which he lays out precisely what nearly everyone who paid any attention at all (to someone other than Chris Matthews, at least) in the last four years knew to be true.  Obama cut and ran from Iraq for domestic political reasons.  The WAPO, of all places, has the story.

(Michele) Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

Barack Obama threw away a victory paid for with the blood of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  He did so with the cavalier disregard of someone discarding old socks.   Obama rendered the blood and sacrifice of our service men and women moot.   Watching ISIS roll over Anbar Province, taking control of places whose names evoke such strong emotion in those who were there, Ramadi and Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit, engendered in me a seething anger that has not really dissipated.   Anger at Barack Hussein Obama for his dereliction of duty, and for the Useful Idiots who believed his far-fetched fabrications, and who yet refuse to place responsibility for ISIS and Iraq’s current troubles on the man whose blithe and egregious neglect of his responsibilities brought on precisely what he was warned about.  It must be akin to a Vietnam Veteran watching the fall of Saigon.

Maybe it was Leon Panetta’s time in uniform (He was a United States Army Intelligence Officer) that would not allow him to ignore the despicable falsehoods perpetrated by his boss, especially when he knew the price that had been paid for the gains Obama was throwing away.  Whichever, Panetta puts paid to the lies of this Administration regarding ISIS and his headlong skedaddle from Iraq.  Panetta goes further.

To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.

Barack Obama has not told the truth about a single act or decision he has made.  His is the most malignant, corrosive, dishonest, and damaging presidency in the history of our nation.   The blood of the mass murders committed daily in Iraq is largely on his hands.  Not that he cares.  He got re-elected.  Much to this great nation’s detriment.

“The man who refuses to judge, who neither agrees nor disagrees, who declares that there are no absolutes and believes that he escapes responsibility, is the man responsible for all the blood that is now spilled in the world.”     – Ayn Rand


Filed under Air Force, army, Around the web, Defense, history, iraq, islam, Libya, marines, navy, obama, Politics, Syria, Uncategorized, veterans, war


The early days of the Cold War saw the US military establishment obsessed with two major themes in weapons- nuclear weapons, and guided missiles. And an early attempt at combining the two was the now almost forgotten Rascal standoff nuclear missile.

Developed by Bell to deliver a nuclear warhead 100 miles from the launch point, the Rascal was a massive missile. It was also to ambitious for the state of the art, and by the time it entered into production, the decision had been made to abandon it.

Early missile programs went through an array of various schemes of nomenclature, but we’ll stick to the final one, the GAM-63.

Powered by a three chamber liquid fueled rocket, the Rascal would climb from its launch altitude of roughly 40,000 feet to a cruise altitude of about 50,000 feet. Two of the rocket chambers would shut down, and the third would sustain the Rascal at a speed of about 1200 miles per hour. About 20 miles out from the target, the Rascal would nose over into a terminal dive.

The Rascal had a pretty interesting guidance system. It had a radar in its nose. That radar would send video of its radar system via radio to the launching bomber.  Having launched, the bomber would turn away, and a retractable receiver antenna in its aft fuselage would pick up the signal, and display it to the bombardier. The bombardier would would then radio steering commands to the missile. As the missile got closer to the target, the better the radar display was, theoretically improving accuracy throughout the flight.

In practice, the Rascal was a mess. Liquid rockets were still very delicate instuments and had a high failure rate. The complex guidance system was unreliable, and was vulnerable to jamming.

There was also a disagreement over which type bomber should carry Rascal. The Air Force first wanted it for the B-29, then the B-50, then the B-36, and finally, the B-47. Strategic Air Command, who never seemed terribly enthusiastic about a weapon Air Force headquarters insisted on, wanted first to arm the B-50, and then the B-36, but not the B-47.

By the time the missile was almost ready for deployment, the B-52 was in service, along with its own standoff weapon, the jet powered Hound Dog missile (AGM-28) with similar speed, but with a 500 mile range, and a simpler, more accurate inertial navigation system.


Filed under Air Force

Combat Proud

Phat’s story here was inspired because I asked him about one of GEN McPeak’s protégés.

Most people in the service don’t get a lot of face time with general officers. In the Army, as far as my day to day life went, it didn’t really matter who the two, three, and four star generals were in my chain of command. The Army is the Army, and it goes on as it always has. A general really has to work at it to make a genuine negative impression on the troops.

And one Air Force officer, McPeak’s protégé, did so. GEN Robert  H. (“Doc”)  Fogelsong was a career fighter pilot, eventually working his way up to four stars, and command of all US Air Force units in Europe, or USAFE.

Fogelsong had a reputation as a micromanager. Like, demanding to know the daily attendance at the base theater, or how many kids in the Child Development Center went to book readings.

The Air Force likes to give programs code names with two names. Cobra Judy, Pave Spike, Commando Solo… you get it?

Fogelsong, as USAFE, decided his units weren’t on the ball as much as they should be on the important things. No, not ability to fly, fight and win… the important things!

Combat Proud: Aims at improving base appearance to foster pride and productivity.

Combat Nighthawk: Links senior noncommissioned officers with junior officers on a night shift to act as the base commander’s eyes and ears, as well as help hone leadership skills.

Combat Education: Helps airmen pursue higher education by offering more flexible and innovative class schedules.

Combat Touch: Focuses on the spiritual needs and well-being of airmen and their families.

Combat Flightline: Helps enhance flying operations by making sure that the best personnel are in the right jobs.

Combat Intro/Exit: Streamlines base in-processing and out-processing.

Combat Fitness: Works to improve airmen’s physical fitness.

Combat Care: Improves care, resources, attention and information spouses and families receive while the military member is deployed.

Hidden Heroes: Encourages active-duty military members, Department of Defense civilians and family members to volunteer on base and in their communities.

Young men and women join the Air Force or other service with a great deal of idealism. They want to do an important job, and take pride in doing it well.

And, of course, the Air Force already had programs in place to address virtually all of these areas of concern. Ah… they didn’t have the cool “Combat….” code name for the program.

By far the least popular program was Combat Proud. Everyone wants to live and work on a nice installation. But Combat Pride was insulting to Airmen throughout Europe. Money was spent to build and paint cinder block walls to keep dumpsters out of sight behind buildings. Airmen were out raking leaves… in a forest!

Gussying up the most mundane chores of the service with a “Combat” nickname, and focusing on them at the expense of truly mission critical tasks, was the hallmark of the micromanager.

If a junior Airman cannot publicly disparage his theater commander by name, there is another way for him to express his displeasure.

If GEN Fogelsong really thought some part of an air base was failing to meet the standards of appearance, there was another, far more appropriate method of addressing shortcomings. USAFE has, as  a right hand man, a Chief Master Sergeant (a super E-9) as his principal advisor on enlisted matters. And that Chief should have gone to the Chief on an air base and remonstrated with him about the standards of appearance.

Toxic leadership is just that, toxic. More than a few good officers and men have simply walked away from a service they loved because one toxic senior leader made the game not worth the candle.

After his retirement from the Air Force, GEN Fogelsong was appointed president of Mississippi State University, where he promptly instituted a similar leadership paradigm.

MSU fired him about a year and a half later.


Filed under Air Force