zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Vlahos: Forty years of the Fighter Mafia

Vlahos: Forty years of the Fighter Mafia

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a “zen”]

Kelly Vlahos, the often sharp-penned defense columnist at The American Conservative, has written an excellent tribute to Colonel John Boyd and his Acolytes:

40 years of the Fighter Mafia

….Boyd and Christie started the group on a very small scale in Florida, fueled more by beer and frivolity than anything else. Things got serious when Boyd and later Christie were brought to work at the Pentagon. They met Pierre Sprey, a self-described “subversive” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, then occupied by Robert McNamara. Sprey was one of the “whiz kids,” but he believed the Air Force was doing everything wrong in Vietnam. He was an early proponent of close air support, which led to the development of the A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog.”

“We were bureaucratic guerrilla warriors, fighting the system and deploying whatever underground means we could use,” including whistleblowing, leaking, and “suborning” members of Congress, Sprey says, half-joking.

“John Boyd came in as a maverick,” Sprey recalled. Initially, Boyd was brought to the Pentagon in the 1960s by a general who disliked Sprey’s ideas on close air support and was pulling together a group of eggheads to “disgrace” him. When the general left Boyd alone in the room with Sprey they “became fast friends, co-conspirators.” The rest is history.

By the time the group held its first Washington meeting in 1973, Sprey, Boyd, Christie, and test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni had designed the concept that was directly implemented as the F-15 and F-16 fighter programs—which have served as the core of American air power for the past 40 years. The group came to be known as the “Fighter Mafia” and expanded their circle to include other like-minded individuals with the same goals for reforming programs and building better weapons systems for the military.

“I’m proud of what we achieved, but it was only a drop in the bucket” relative to the massive size of the Pentagon’s budget and operations, says Sprey. “At least we got a few things done.”

Today, he adds, “we’re a network of subversives trying to cut the defense budget and campaigning against things that don’t work.”

Nice piece.  Read the rest here.


This would also be a good time to remind everyone that the Boyd & Beyond 2013 conference will be at Quantico on October 11th and 12th.  It’s free, but you must RSVP Scott Shipman or Colonel Stan Coerr. 

7 Responses to “Vlahos: Forty years of the Fighter Mafia”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    This was my first Fort Meyer happy hour; quite a turnout. Tom Christie and Pierre Spray, as was naval writer/columnist Norman Polmar were in attendance—along with lots of other Boyd admirers. 
    We still have room (but not much) for those interested. Let us know and we’ll save a seat. 

  2. zen Says:

    Much thanks Scott! I figured there might be a seat or two left for interested latecomers.  It will be hard to top the last few years but I’m sure we will all give it a try 😉 Thanks for all the hard work that you and Stan have put forth to make B&B possible!

  3. Ed Beakley Says:

    Mark, Thanks for posting. Interesting article.

    Given my long time following of Boyd on both the OODA Loop level and the EM/Fighter design level, plus my on personal background, I’ve often wondered how/what he and this group would  think on a couple of issues:

    1) Had Boyd continued with his original orders to fly F-4s out of Thailand in ’72 rather than commanding the spook base, how would his thinking have changed/or not on fighter aviation? By 1972 the F-4 was the AF do-it-all airplane.  Whether your mission was air-air or air-ground depended upon which base you were assigned. For the AF “fighter pilot” was a generic name.  Even today, reading documents on requirements for a fighter a/c means digging deeper into what is desired.

    2) Leads to 2nd question:  Despite the YF-16/YF-17 fly-off and my understanding that the F-16 was clearly the better air-air a/c, the F-16 has become the equivalent mission wise of   the A-7 attack plane. As I understand things, a significant element of the Fighter Mafia fight had to do with not having a multi-role a/c. Indeed,  history since Vietnam is almost entirely “attack/CAS.” Lots of trade-offs here: for the Navy, not having to support multiple types on the CV, for either service more or less cost to buy two different a/c, and then there’s the F-35 and cost of technology to  “do-it-all.”

    Interesting to say “save money” in defense, but there are some really hard design vs mission issue here. Sitting in on one of their nights would be interesting.  

  4. Grurray Says:

    Ed,  if I may interject, while Boyd didn’t think much of close air support, his fighter mafia compatriots did and applied his methodologies to replace the F-4
    In fact the story of the development of the A-10 is another remarkable one
    I just finally finished Science, Strategy, and War. The Osinga Roundtable is why I started reading this blog and ChicagoBoyz in the first place. Lucky for me I stumbled onto it (although all your really fine work means your stuck with my comments haha).
    Hopefully you can post some updates of the Boyd & Beyond for your readers.
    One more thing- Boyd wasn’t a reflection of his times as one your esteemed peers has suggested. He was a reflection of the disruption of his times, which is a whole other ballgame.

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Grurray,

    Your get away paragraph caught my eye. Boyd’s reliance on science (even pop-science) was pretty pervasive. “Faith in science” was soaring in the 60s/70s, and to that extent, he was a product of that sort of disruption. For example, Destruction and Creation: does Boyd mean to use particle physics to describe human cognition, or was he employing metaphor? Polling some of his contemporaries the answer has been more skewed to the former, not the latter. Boyd’s use of science as a metaphor makes a compelling case, but one that even neurologists haven’t attempted to interject in explaining cognition. Rosenblum and Kuttner (Quantum Enigma) take an unconvincing stab, but like many things “quantum” their explanation requires much faith. It is not with lack of trying, but much of the physics of cognition is more conjecture than explanations that will stand up to scrutiny. Also, enter the theory of emergence; “life” defies the second law—at least until we die, so this portion taken literally remains suspect in my opinion. As a metaphor, brilliant, but unconvincing as a causal or causative explanation for cognition and learning.

    Polanyi on the inadequacy of sciend explaining consciousness:

    “Yet it is taken for granted today among biologists that all manifestations of life can ultimately be explained by the laws governing inanimate matter. K.S. Lashley declared this at the Hixon Symposium of 1948, as the common belief of all participants, without ever consulting his distinguished colleagues. Yet this assumption is patent nonsense. The most striking feature of our own existence is our sentience. The laws of physics and chemistry include no conception of sentience, and any system wholly determined by these laws must be insentient. It may be in the interest of science to turn a blind eye on this central fact of the universe, but it is certainly not in the interest of truth. I shall prefer to follow up, on the contrary, the fact that the study of life must ultimately reveal some principles additional to those manifested by inanimate matter, and to prefigure the general outline of one such, yet unknown, principle.” Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, The University of Chicago Press, 1966. (emphasis added)

    Terrence Deacon’s writing on emergence theory captures consciousness in a manner more believable than physics or chemistry. He has a book called The ReEmergence of Emergence. The essay is called, Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel’s Hub (this book is expensive, but worth the price as an alternative). This paragraph arrested me when I first read it:

    “On their surface, the first and second laws of thermodynamics appear to exclude the possibility of true teleological processes, such as functional design, representation, and intentional initiation of action. The notion that something absent, like a represented object or possible future state, could be a cause of physical change appears a bit like something coming from nothing, and the possibility that functional design could arise other than by preserved accident seems to violate the very logic of physical causality. It has become quite common for contemporary science to treat all teleological phenomena as purposive in name only—teleonomic [term used to describe the behavior of mechanisms which act as though they had an aim, such as a thermostat, but which can be completely described in purely mechanical terms]—and to assume that true teleology is illusory and that the supposed role of representation and the intentionality even in human action must be ultimately epiphenomenal.”

    This is a free essay that will give some insight into Deacon’s thinking w/respect to language.

    Another Deacon reference is Evolution and Learning, The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered, and the essay is called The Hierarchic Logic of Emergence: Untangling the Interdependence of Evolution and Self-Organization [this book can be purchased for a modest prices on http://www.abe.com]—-all that for the concluding sentence:
    “Consciousness emerges as an incessant creation of something from nothing, a process continually transcending itself.”
    For me, these sources connecting scientific theory to cognition and consciousness are more literal connections, but still inadequate to explain one of mankind’s oldest questions. (btw, Damasio’s Decarte’s Error is quite good, too).

    Some of the older guys avoid me because I disagree with a literal interpretation of Boyd’s singular essay, but rarely back up the legitimacy of D&C as a literal explanation for how we learn (one of his goals, I believe).

  6. Grurray Says:

    Scott,  thanks I will check out Terrence Deacon. 
    Boyd’s extensive bibliography has set me off on a flurry of searching and further reading, but emerging systems is the one that I’ve actually been paying the most attention to. It was probably the main reason I started reading about him in the first place. 
    Agree with you that the dialectic engine of Destruction & Creation is a learning process. I also understood it as a creation and emergence process.
    The cycle is causing the transformations  – Charles’ “epiphanies” – and there’s no difference between process and structure.
    I think that’s what you’re saying in your review of the book on Amazon.

  7. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Grurray,
    Boyd’s bibliography abides on my shoulder as an accusing spirit somedays…and it was from this source I began four or five years ago (btw, like you, I found this blog via Boyd). Deacon has an essay on Information Theory that I’ve chipping away at. Information theory interests me as I found while trying to prove/disprove Boyd’s literal or metaphorical use of entropy in D&C. This essay is typical of Deacon’s dense writing style, but so far, there is much to admire and even more to consider.
    And yes, your assessment of of my typically truncated Amazon review is correct.

Switch to our mobile site