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Mobbing the “Fighter Mafia”

by | Feb 5, 2019 | Uncategorized | 6 comments

One of the very best biographies that I have ever read is Robert Coram’s superb book, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, which I followed up shortly afterwards with its spiritual “counterpart”, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant Hammond. Both books made a lot of effort to note the work of “The Fighter Mafia“. This was a small group of renegade civilian designers and defense analysts, along with a select few USAF officers, who truly revolutionised fighter and attack aircraft design for a full generation.

The Fighter Mafia all trace their roots back to Col. John Boyd – a genuine military legend, whose “Energy-Manoeuvrability Theory” completely changed the way that fighter pilots learned how to dogfight, and eventually had a heavy influence on the way that fighter, interceptor, and attack aircraft were designed. Col. Boyd was a true iconoclast, a man who used to brag about how he never met a Pentagon general that he couldn’t offend. He simply did not care whether his opinion was popular or not; he had an instinctive desire to go seek out the truth, and his quest led him down avenues that just about nobody else ever thought made any kind of sense.

Among the US Marine Corps, Col. Boyd’s memory is revered for his role as the father of many of their modern combat doctrines, which emphasise (or at least, used to emphasise) flexibility, adaptability, constant learning, and personal initiative. Col. Boyd’s classic briefing, Patterns of Conflict, was the catalyst for a major overhaul of the curriculum taught at the USMC’s Amphibious Warfare School, and his ideas had a big influence on the production and publication of Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 (FMFM-1): Warfighting.

His work was not without controversy – some of it immense. One of John Boyd’s most important ideas, the OODA Loop, has often been marketed as the ultimate warfighting and business decision making tool – yet the evidence of its actual use in combat has been a subject of hot debate among the military strategist community.

And Col. Boyd did not make himself many friends at the Pentagon, particularly among the Air Force top brass, because he kept telling them that the weapons systems that the Pentaloons wanted were too big, too heavy, too expensive, and too complicated to do the job right.

Time has since proven Col. Boyd almost entirely correct.

The F-4 Phantom II, for instance, was originally produced without a built-in gun. It was called the “Smoking Thunderhog” because of its two gigantic engines, which, as Bill Whittle points out in the video below, was proof positive that even a brick will fly given sufficient thrust:

There are a couple of facts that we can take issue with in Bill’s screed, such as the notion that the USAF’s kill ratio during the Korean War was 10:1 or thereabouts for the F-86 Sabre; more recent research indicates that the true kill ratio was more like 1.8:1 against DPRK and Chinese pilots, and as low as 1.3:1 against Soviet pilots.

But the basic point remains. The Fighter Mafia, led in spirit if not in fact by Col. Boyd, transformed American warfighting over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. Their influence can be felt even today – but unfortunately, it appears to have waned quite significantly.

The greatest physical evidence of that influence comes in the form of the fighter and attack aircraft designs that came out of that era. The USAF, still smarting over the ways in which its pet projects had been shown to be totally inadequate for the Vietnam theatre of combat operations, was ripe for an insurgent campaign to revolutionise its fighter design principles from the ground up.

This was the same USAF that had previously signed off on the lumbering, overweight, hugely expensive F-111 Aardvark, an aircraft that used a variable-geometry wing that looked really cool was but never really delivered on its promises, and which never really quite knew whether it was supposed to be a fighter, a bomber, or both. It was the same USAF that decided that it really needed expensive, multi-role, multi-capability fighters that could do everything, including sing and dance – except for actually, y’know, dogfighting. And this was the same Air Force that sang the hymns and mantras of shooting down the enemy with nothing more than missiles and technological wizardry.

The results of the Fighter Mafia’s efforts to get rid of the bloat, waste, and stupidity associated with military technology came about in four aircraft and their variants: the F-15 Eagle, possibly the most successful air superiority fighter and interceptor in history; the F-16 Fighting Falcon (or Viper, depending on who you ask), one of the most successful military fighters of all time in terms of numbers, quality, service record, and sheer versatility; the F/A-18 Hornet, a highly successful multi-role aircraft that actually performs well as both a fighter and a ground-pounder; and the A-10 Thunderbolt II (or Warthog, again, depending on who you ask), one of the downright ugliest attack aircraft ever, but so deadly that it was called “White Death” by the utterly crushed and demoralised Iraqi National Guard troops who witnessed firsthand its extreme lethality to armour and infantry in Operation Desert Storm.

These four aircraft were all designed for different purposes and with different reasons in mind, but they all shared one common overarching principle. They were meant for specific purposes, to perform specific missions, and to do so better than anything else anywhere.

The reason why the Air Force and Navy top brass absolutely hated these aircraft back when they were first proposed is simple. Multi-role fighters are expensive. They require huge numbers of people to design them. They are high-profile. They get a lot of publicity. Naturally, any military officer who attaches himself to the development and production of a big-ticket gold-plated item like that, will get a lot of attention for himself and his career will inevitably benefit.

Never mind that the end product is almost always crap.

We have seen this repeatedly in past performances by the US military. The aforementioned F-111 Aardvark was one such example of a vastly overweight and bloated project that singularly failed to deliver on its promises. The F-14 Tomcat, somewhat surprisingly, was another one – never mind the Top Gun propaganda, as slick and cool and epic as it was, apparently the F-14 was actually something of an underpowered flying bus. (Or so one of the books above claims, I have no personal idea whether that’s true. That it was very heavy, complex, and not terribly nimble, is well known.)

The problem is always and everywhere the same: some bright young pencil-pusher comes along with a wizard’s new wheeze designed to save a lot of money by requiring completely different services in the Armed Forces, with completely different mission parameters and warfighting doctrines and so on, to adopt a single unified weapons platform that will therefore save huge amounts of money because everyone is using common parts, tools, techniques and logistics.

It never, EVER works out this way. The F-111 was one such disaster, imposed upon the USAF and USN by Poindexter US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. The F-14 nearly turned into another such disaster; originally the defence establishment wanted to dump that one on the USAF, and it was only when the airheads strenuously objected and started developing their own fighter that things got sorted out properly.

Unfortunately, the Poindexters eventually won out after the 1970s, and today we have such horrors as the F-35 Joint Strike Flying Piano – an aircraft whose total cost of development has amounted to OVER $1 TRILLION, or in other words more than the entire annual output of Australia, and which still cannot meet its original mission parameters for any of the three services for which it was designed.

I have been an extremely harsh critic of the F-35 for several years – though, obviously, I am no military man and have no dog in that particular fight (so to speak). My criticisms of it are based on its real world results, which are abysmal at this point. It is basically useless at doing any of the missions for which it is designed, and as a result has put the US military a full generation behind less actively stupid military planners in Russia and China, who are less easily impressed by PowerPointless presentations and sparkling promises, and care rather more about actually fighting real wars.

As far as I can tell, a big part of the problem comes from the defence establishment’s insistence that the USAF needs this odd “high-low mix” of one really expensive, sophisticated, ultra-capable air superiority fighter, in the form of the F-22, and one smaller, less expensive, but more workmanlike multi-role fighter, in the form of the F-35.

The problem is that the F-22 was cancelled after only about a hundred aircraft were produced. And the F-22 was, for a long time, the most sophisticated such aircraft around – until the Russians came up with the Su-57, which promises to be more manoeuvreable, faster, considerably easier to operate, and is quite obviously designed along far less stupid principles than the new platinum-plated “Lead Sled” that the USAF top brass think will help maintain America’s air supremacy.

There are many reasons why America’s military finds itself in such a serious pickle these days, to the point where quite a few people who look seriously and soberly at such matters reckon that the USA would actually lose a shooting war, quite badly, against both Russia and China if operating anywhere within those nations’ spheres of influence. But one of the biggest and most obvious reasons is the fact that the US military has forgotten the wisdom of the Fighter Mafia.

That wisdom was under serious assault even back in the late 1980s and 1990s. I think it was the first book that I referenced earlier which contained a line about how Fred Reed, whose writing I normally pay respectful attention to, wrote columns back in his days as a Washington whorenalist severely criticising the Fighter Mafia. That criticism did not stop coming from him; in 2013, he wrote an article called “Killer Conmen” in which he made a number of rather bold assertions:

I recently found in The American Conservative a piece called Forty Years of the Fighter Mafia, this mafia being a subset of the “Military Reformers,” who have insisted for many years that weaponry used by the Pentagon “doesn´t work” because it is too complex. They additionally were the people who brought you the imaginary $600 toilet seat, $17 bolt (if memory serves) and the $5000 coffee pot (or some such amount). I had the dismal duty of covering them in the Eighties in Washington. It was an eye-opening display of how easy it is to manipulate a gullible press.

Their song was, and is, that America needed simple, robust, reliable weaponry such as the Soviet Union was said to have, instead of the over-technologized equipment that the US favored. The M1 tank “wouldn´t work,” they said, because sand would destroy its turbine engine, because it would be helpless if its electronics failed, and because the driver´s compartment was so small that only a midget could fit in it.  (So help me, they said this.) The F-15 fighter was too big, too heavy, too lacking in maneuverability for air-to-air combat, and its use of radar and BVR missiles—Beyond Visual Range—was flatly unworkable. (I hear eyes glazing over, but military guys will be interested.) In particular, the Aim-7 Sparrow radar-guided missile “wouldn´t work.”


The Fighter Mafia was heavily influenced by John Boyd, a fighter pilot from the Korean War. He was very good at dogfighting, which was important in the wars he knew, and apparently decided that aerobatic combat was what the Air Force was for.

With a sort of backward-looking romanticism characteristic of the Reformers, he wanted a fast, agile, light fighter not burdened with bombs, radar, or missiles of long range. The gun was more important.

Long-range missiles were in their infancy and did not work terribly well. Ignoring the common experience that what works sort of today will work a lot better tomorrow and like gangbusters by next Thursday, Boyd, and the Fighter Mafia, wanted a philosophical Sopwith-Camel. It didn´t bother them that nobody else did. Israel, with the best tactical-fighter force of the age, was and is big on electronics. The Israelis had to win their wars, not talk about them.

Quite apart from the fact that all of this is a severe misquoting of everything that the Fighter Mafia actually espoused, the commentary from Mr. Reed seems rather to have overlooked a few salient points.

First, the M1 Abrams platform did not prove to be quite as brilliant as its supporters made it out to be. (I will be the first to admit that later generations of the Abrams platform might have improved on the original’s significant shortcomings.) It was hugely expensive relative to its competitors, particularly the German-made Leopard II and the Israeli Merkava Mk 3. It was unreliable and extremely thirsty, thanks to its big gas turbine engine – most tanks use diesel instead. And nowadays, the Russian T-14 Armata is a real contender in a game of top trumps against the Abrams.

Second, the military reform movement and the Fighter Mafia railed against precisely the sort of overly complicated boondoggles that have led America to waste huge amounts of money on such failures as the Future Combat System and, of course, the F-35. The Fighter Mafia were never opposed to high technology – what they wanted was cost effective technology. The insulting notion that Col. John Boyd, one of the best pilots that America has ever produced, wanted nothing more than a glorified Sopwith Camel, is so ridiculous as to be utterly unworthy of comment.

Third, the absolutely undeniable successes of the high-technology style of warfare used by the Americans in Operation Desert Storm were conveniently airbrushed and window-dressed in many ways. There is certainly no denying that America’s use of stealth technology to knock out Iraqi air defence radars and C&C centres was extremely effective. Baghdad at the time was protected by more SAM sites than Moscow – some 16,000 of them, if memory serves correctly.

The problem is that this war was fought thirty years ago, against a numerically superior but technologically inferior, poorly trained, and poorly led Iraqi army made up mostly of Arabs. As the Israelis have proven repeatedly, defeating Arabs in conventional combat, even when massively outnumbered, isn’t actually that hard if you have technological superiority, training, and skilled leadership on your side.

And those amazing videos on CNN showing precision strikes from laser-guided munitions dropped out of the bays of stealth fighters? Yeah, let’s just say that it was VERY likely that there were some USMC Force Recon Marines on the ground shining laser pointers at those buildings.

Oh, and one more thing: the supposed “supremacy” of stealth technology came to a very abrupt and messy end 20 years ago, when an F-117 Nighthawk was shot down by Serbians using a Russian Integrated Air Defence System.

That story should give every single one of the technology uber alles types a minor coronary. The Serbs were using radar technology that was state of the art in the 1950s, which according to the airheads meant that they could not possibly see the stealthiest and most advanced fighter in the world coming… right?

Wrong. Not only did they see it coming, they actually tracked the flight paths of the F-117s and intercepted and decoded NATO communications, so they knew exactly where and when the stealth fighters were coming.

And they went and shot down the one plane that the USAF’s military planners said couldn’t be shot down by old technology.

They even had the audacity, the effrontery, the bare-faced cheek, to put out propaganda posters saying… well, this:

Serbian propaganda poster regarding the shooting Image Source: Clay Gilliland CC BY-SA 2.0

Yeah, I laughed.

Don’t for one moment think that the Russkies and Chinese did not sit bolt-upright in their chairs when they saw that particular news item being trumpeted across every television screen on CNN. I remember vividly watching news dispatches on the subject back when I had just moved to Australia. It was front-page news for a couple of days. The supposedly “invincible” stealth jets had just taken a massive kick to the teeth.

The Russians, for their part, have spent the intervening 20 years both designing highly manoeuvrable fighters like the Su-57, and developing long-wave radars with highly advanced cleanup and detection algorithms specifically built to catch out every stealth aircraft around. The Russkies don’t pretend to be as good as the Americans at building stealthy aircraft – they openly admit that the Su-57 is not as stealthy as the F-35. But they also designed the Su-57 along much more sensible principles, to be much more powerful, with a much better thrust-to-weight ratio, and a far bigger wing area. That makes it agile, which the F-35 most decidedly is not.

Proponents of the F-35 point out that the Su-57 is not stealthy and has a much lower “Beyond Visual Range” (BVR) capability for missile engagements. They argue that the stealth characteristics of the F-35 make it able to engage enemy fighters at very long range and shoot them down long before they ever know what hit them.

This, you may recall, was the exact same set of arguments used by the airheads who claimed that the F-4 Phantom II didn’t need an internally mounted gun because it could engage enemy MiGs with missiles at long range.

Quite apart from the fact that the probability of actually hitting anything at those ranges was roughly 10%, given the missiles of the time, the Vietnam-era rules of engagement were changed to ensure that only visual-range engagements were possible. And, of course, the F-4s got waxed, repeatedly, because their pilots were not trained in aerial combat and had no idea how to fight at those ranges.

The F-35 and similar systems are being designed under one specific set of rules of engagement. Throw those out – as is VERY LIKELY in the next real shooting war, because rules of engagement NEVER stay static – and you throw out the entire reason for that plane’s existence.

It’s easy to fight against an enemy that cannot see you, match your logistical capabilities, or understand how to deal with your tactics. It is an entirely different matter to fight an enemy who is your equal in terms of skill, training, technology, and – critically – has the advantage of operating in his theatre of war, not yours.

The core and enduring lesson of the Fighter Mafia remains every bit as relevant today as it was back in the 1970s when they did so much to completely upend the world of military thinking: simple and effective ALWAYS wins out against complex and expensive. The American military establishment in particular, and the Western military hierarchy in general, has failed to heed this lesson for nearly thirty years, and the results have been catastrophic for the state of their armed forces, the quality of their equipment, the skill levels of their warfighters, and the effectiveness of their warfighting doctrines.

As always, military leaders prepare to fight the last war. The next wars will probably not be between state actors – between the US, Russia, and China – but will almost certainly be fought internally, between the various tribes and nations into which the West is rapidly separating itself. Against such a war, complex, overburdened, expensive weapons systems are not merely stupid, they are utterly useless.

And against an enemy – which is what the American top brass seems to believe the Russians are, but from my own personal experience that is the exact opposite of what the Russians themselves want to be – that is technologically advanced, doctrinally sound, well-trained, well-motivated, tough, battle-hardened, and operating within the limits of its own logistical capabilities, the US military will not merely lose because of its stupidly complicated gadgets and gizmos.

It will be humiliated, in a fashion that we have not seen since… well, honestly, probably the very same Operation Desert Storm that gave the US military such a fearsome reputation.

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  1. AB.Prosper

    It could get worse. The US nuke arsenal is degrading asBy the early 2030s, the viability of the entire U.S. nuclear deterrent is at risk from an inability to produce tritium for nuclear warheads. The its tritium triggers can no longer be made and we lack the organizational ability to do this.

    According to defense news

    By the early 2030s, the viability of the entire U.S. nuclear deterrent is at risk from an inability to produce tritium for nuclear warheads

    This leave the US vulnerable to a kill shot since our ability retaliate is limited

    If Russia or China pushed too hard hit a US production with EMP weapons , bioweapons or anything else with enough boom and watch the society implode along it natural fracture lines of culture and ethnicity

  2. Tom Kratman

    There's no real debate on OODA. The Army thought it was silly to begin with and the Marines, who made it the core of the doctrine, have now relegated it to a footnote in their warfighting manual.

    POGO? Pogo was founded in 1981 to murder the M2/3 and M1, quite possibly on behalf of the Soviet Union. They're neither insightful, nor intelligent, nor especially honest. Example, one criticism of the M2 was that the Army didn't shoot it from certain angles in testing; Oh, wicked, evil, and deceptive Army. Ummm…no. There's no need to waste an expensive target on a shot THAT YOU ALREADY KNOW WILL KILL THE VEHICLE. Pogo somehow neglected to mention that. They're frauds, start to finish and top to bottom.

    The other tanks are just as expensive as, or more expensive than, the M1. Europe has been selling off most of their fleets at rock bottom prices because Europe has disarmed and has a lot of surplus hanging around. The M1, largely because we've built so many and used them so much in peace and war, thus working out all the bugs, remains the class of the world, tank-wise. We don't even know yet if T-14 is anything more than a soft metal mock up. Yes, really. M1 does use a lot of fuel, but this is only a problem for the logistic incompetents of Europe. _We_ are the logistic masters of the world and have no problem with keeping it fueled.

  3. Robert Wood

    I have to disagree with you about the F111 not delivering on its promise, especially the ones in the service of the RAAF (F111C). True, there were intense teething issues with the initial design of the aircraft, especially the variable-swing wing, however once they came into service initally with the USAF in the Vietnam War, the precision stike capability (the F111 was always designed to be used as a low-level strike bomber, never a dog-fighter – you just have to look at how the cockpit was designed to see that ultimate truth) helped to change the direction of how the war was going and drive the North Vietnamese to the discussion table. The North Vietnamese nicknamed it "Whispering Death" due to its ability to strike targets without being detected.
    The F111 also served in the 1st Gulf War without loss conducted . There is even the story of an EF111 Raven being credited with taking down an Iraqi MiG, a fine effort considering that the EF111 wasn't armed.
    The RAAF F111C (affectionately called "The Pig" in RAAF circles) became a feared and respected part of the Australian defence force, so much due to it's ability to fly from Amberley (near Brisbane) to Jakarta and back without refueling, and the capability to place a bomb within a designated window. An Indonesian General was quoted to have stated this fear to his President as I recall. The F/A18s in RAAF service don't have the range to do this, and require tanker support to get back to base, which adds a greater level of vunerability.
    The RAAF would still be flying these aircraft if it wasn't for the issue with the fuel tanks having to be resealed, and the cancer cases that resulted from the airmen that did this job.

    • Didact

      The basic premise of the F-111 Aardvark was to perform as a multi-service, multi-role fighter-bomber that could both handle stand-off naval defense needs using those huge Phoenix missiles, and Air Force ground-pounder needs with a big bomb capacity. It was never able to do that because a fully loaded F-111 was so heavy that it could not perform a decent carrier landing safely, which is why only one such was ever recorded.

      The Air Force version worked well, certainly. But the F-111 could never perform a multi-role mission – which is what it was designed for. Hence, on that simple basis, it failed to deliver.

    • Robert Wood

      I agree with you about the naval version of the F111, in that as a multi-role mission it was unable to perform as designed. But really, what weapon system ever performs as designed straight off the bat (with possibly the exception of the brilliant A10 Warthog)? For example, the F15 was originally designed to be a purely all-weather air-superiority fighter. However, was subsequently reinvented as a ground attack system with the development of the 15E Strike Eagle.
      Once the powers-that-be determined what the F111 (and the FB111) was best at – low-level strike bombing – then it became the best weapon system for that role.
      Plenty of weapon systems that started out not as expected, and redeveloped into the best in their field through working on their strengths. Just look at the history of the M16 assault rifle as an example.

    • Didact

      For example, the F15 was originally designed to be a purely all-weather air-superiority fighter.

      Yeah, and the F-16 was originally designed specifically to be a highly manoeuvrable, rapier-like lightweight fighter built to fly circles around the F-15. It achieved those things, mostly, and since then turned into a multi-role tactical aircraft that can perform a whole bunch of different roles.

      Same with the F/A-18 – originally designed to be a fighter, and then later it was discovered that it could perform both an attack role and a fighter role in one airframe. The original plan was to separate out the fighter and attack roles into two different airframes with different avionics.

      The problem with the F-111 is that it was always designed from the beginning to be a long-range interceptor AND a bomber. That doesn't work, as people are discovering now with the F-35. The idea was the same: save costs by using a single airframe with common components. Didn't work then, doesn't work now.

      It is certainly true that people find unexpected uses for weapons systems beyond their original design. I agree entirely. But that isn't my point. The point here is that a weapons system designed to do many completely different things, will fail to do any one of those things particularly well.


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