The Fighter Mafia
The Fighter Mafia was a controversial group of U.S. Air Force officers and civilian defense analysts who, in the 1970s, advocated for fighter design criteria that challenged the conventional thinking and ideologies of the time. Their assertions were that:
- Air Force generals established the wrong criteria for combat effectiveness, ignoring combat history.
- High technology and the focus on “higher, faster, and farther” increases costs and decreases effectiveness. The mafia argued for cheaper and better planes.
- Air Force bureaucracies were corrupt as they did not conduct honest testing on weapons before buying them and deploying them in the field.
- The focus should be on close air support and the use of combined arms to support maneuver warfare rather than interdiction bombing.
- Multi-role and multi-mission capability compromises the plane.
- Beyond visual range combat was a fantasy.
The Fighter Mafia also advocated the use of John Boyd and Thomas P. Christie’s Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) theory in designing fighter aircraft. The E-M model enabled quantitative comparison of the performance of aircraft in terms of air combat maneuvering in the context of dogfighting. The Fighter Mafia influenced the specifications for the F-X and went on to independently develop specifications for the Lightweight Fighter (LWF).
The next generation of warplanes combined both maneuverability (which the group advocated) as well as large active radars and radar-guided missiles (which they opposed). Aircraft in this generation included the F-14, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18.
The Fighter Mafia Name
The nickname, a professional jest coined by an Air Force member of Italian heritage, was a rejoinder to the “Bomber Mafia”, theorists at the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s whose ideas led to the primacy of heavy bomber aircraft performing strategic bombing over that of fighter (the latter at the time being called “pursuit” aircraft in the Army Air Corps and later the Army Air Forces).
In the 1960s, both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy were in the process of acquiring large, heavy fighters designed primarily to fight with missiles. Project Forecast, a 1963 Air Force attempt to identify future weapons trends, stated that a counter air defense must be able to destroy aircraft at long ranges using advanced weapon systems. The Air Force felt that these needs would be filled for the next twenty years by missile-armed variants of the F-111 and F-4 Phantom II with no gun. Their F-X fighter acquisition program, initially merged into the TFX program (which developed the F-111), was written along those lines.
Combat during the Vietnam War demonstrated that the entire “Missileer” concept was not ready for real combat conditions. Restrictive rules of engagement (ROE), limitations in communications (IFF), unreliable missiles and a wide variety of other problems conspired to make air-to-air combat devolve into dogfights far more often than US air combat tacticians had envisioned. In spite of a huge technical superiority on paper and some very successful BVR missile aces, the F-4s found themselves fighting at close quarters with the so-called “inferior” Soviet-designed MiG-21, and losing the fight more often than expected. Heavy and poorly maneuverable fighters originally imagined by the F-X program would be even worse off in these situations.
Boyd’s work with E-M modeling demonstrated that the F-111 would be poorly suited to the role of fighter, and the Air Force F-X proposal was quietly rewritten to reflect his findings, dropping a heavy swing-wing from the design, lowering the gross weight from 60,000+ pounds to slightly below 40,000, and decreasing the top speed from Mach 2.7 to 2.3–2.5. The result was the F-15 Eagle, an aircraft that was far superior in maneuverability to the F-111 fighter variants. The Air Force had also been studying a lighter day fighter. Starting in 1965, the Air Force had pursued a low-priority study of the Advanced Day Fighter (ADF), a 25,000 pound design. After they learned of the MiG-25 in 1967, a minor panic broke out and the ADF was dropped in order to focus work on the F-15. The F-15, originally a lighter aircraft, grew in size and weight as it attempted to match the inflated performance estimates of the MiG-25. While Boyd’s contributions to the F-15 were significant, he felt that it was still a compromise.
Boyd, defense analysts Tom Christie, Pierre Sprey, Chuck Myers, test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni and aeronautical engineer Harry Hillaker formed the core of the self-dubbed “Fighter Mafia” which worked behind the scenes in the late 1960s to pursue a lightweight fighter as an alternative to the F-15. The group strongly believed that an ideal fighter should not include any of the radar-guided missile systems, active radar or rudimentary ground-attack capability that found their way into the F-15. Riccioni coined the nickname, a joke on his Italian heritage that harkened back to the “Bomber Mafia” (whose acolytes still occupied the upper command positions of the Air Force) and dubbed himself the “godfather”. In 1969, under the guise that the Navy was developing a small, high-performance Navy aircraft, Riccioni won $149,000 to fund the “Study to Validate the Integration of Advanced Energy-Maneuverability Theory with Trade-Off Analysis”. This money was split between Northrop and General Dynamics to build the embodiment of Boyd’s E-M theory – a small, low-drag, low-weight, pure air-to-air fighter with no bomb racks. Northrop demanded and received $100,000 to design the YF-17; General Dynamics, eager to redeem its debacle with the F-111, received the remainder to develop the YF-16.
In the summer of 1971, deputy defense secretary David Packard announced a budget of $200 million to be spent on prototypes from all the services branches. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and his deputy David Packard had entered office with the Nixon administration in 1969 and were tasked with whipping the military purchasing system into shape. This was in response to Senator William Proxmire issuing reports critical of the high costs of the F-15 and F-14. Packard was interested in the idea of prototyping weapons before sending them intro production, given issues stemming from McNamara’s “Total Package Procurement Concept” where analysis and quantification was done on paper. The 1972 fiscal year budget assigned $12 million for Lightweight Fighter prototypes. On January 6, 1971, an RFP was issued to industry for a 20,000 pound fighter to complement the F-15. Sprey insisted on a fly-off between two prototypes, as he had earlier on the A-X program, pitting the planes against MiG-17s and MiG-21s secretly maintained in Nevada under the Constant Peg program, as well as the F-4. Furthermore, the evaluating pilots would not be test pilots, and each would fly both airframes. In the resulting fighter competition, the USAF would select the YF-16 over the YF-17. The F-16 would become a versatile, multi-role fighter bomber for USAF and numerous NATO, Allied and Coalition partner nations.
However, the losing aircraft, the YF-17, would go on to provide the basis for the subsequent development and acquisition of the aircraft carrier-capable F/A-18 Hornet for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and later employed by other NATO, Allied and Coalition nations that preferred a twin-engine versus single engine fighter and strike aircraft.
As the Fighter Mafia attracted considerable controversy, the actual extent of their contribution to US fighter design is a matter of debate. The F-15 was the first plane in the USAF’s history that was designed with maneuverability specifications in mind thanks to Boyd’s E-M theory. The Fighter Mafia argued for a bubble canopy (found in the F-15 and F-16) since it would allow the pilot more visibility to spot other airplanes to sneak up on them, to avoid being surprised, or to have better situational awareness in dogfights. However, not all of the Fighter Mafia’s ideas were implemented. The F-15, F-16, and A-10 differed from the Fighter Mafia’s vision in various ways.
The Fighter Mafia’s preference was for an aircraft dedicated to air-to-air superiority rather than a multi-role fighter. The motto was “not a pound for air-to-ground”. The mafia promoted a “Red Bird” concept that would lower weight by stripping the plane of extraneous equipment such as active radar. They wanted to lower the top speed of the plane to Mach 1.6 since the variable-geometry intake necessary for higher speeds imposed a weight penalty on the plane. The lower top speed trade-off would allow the Red Bird to excel everywhere else- cost, range and maneuverability. Top speed was relatively less important since warplanes spent very little time at their highest speeds- dogfighting is done at subsonic speeds and the time leading up to a dogfight is often done at cruising speeds.
In light of the mafia’s disappointment with the F-15, the lightweight fighter was supposed to be the air-to-air superiority fighter that they wanted. Compared to the Red Bird concept, the LWF would cost even less. As Pierre Sprey argued that sneaking up on an unaware opponent was the most important criteria of a good fighter, the LWF’s small size would also make it less visible to the eye. A faster supersonic cruising speed would make it more difficult for enemies to sneak up from behind. However, production F-16s lacked supercruise as the Air Force bureaucracy saddled the F-16 with multi-mission equipment, air-to-ground features, and an active radar. Whereas the prototype YF-16 “whipped” other airplanes in dogfights, the production version was less maneuverable and performed worse in air-to-air combat. Harry Hillaker, the F-16’s designer, commented: “if I had realized at the time that the airplane would have been used as a multimission, primarily an air-to-surface airplane as it is used now, I would have designed it differently”.
While conventional wisdom at the time considered twin engines to be safer, the F-16 challenged that view with a single-engine design.
While the A-10 stayed fairly close to Pierre Sprey’s vision as a dedicated close air support plane, Sprey promoted his Blitzfighter concept that would be even more minimalist. Sprey argued that bombs and missiles would be less effective in the CAS role than the 30mm cannon of the A-10. Bombs were inaccurate while air-to-ground missiles would expose the A-10 to anti-aircraft guns. The Blitzfighter would be roughly a fifth of the A-10’s weight mainly by having the gatling gun as the only weapon.
The multi-role F-16 found many export customers, in part due to production of the plane being spread around to participating countries. The Fighter Mafia’s push for a lightweight and therefore more cost-effective plane played a role in the plane’s success.
The A-10 did not have any export customers.
Critics argue that the F-15 and F-16 succeeded because they moved away from the Fighter Mafia’s ideas, seeing significant export success because they were multi-role aircraft with radar-guided missiles. This is despite the F-16 being originally designed as an air-to-air superiority fighter with design trade-offs that were suboptimal for the multi-role capabilities added on. The critics point to the F-15 and F-16’s excellent track record in combat in Lebanon and other conflicts, with extremely lopsided kill ratios.
Proponents of the F-35 argue that “fourth generation” aircraft like the F-15, F-16, A-10, etc. will fare poorly in a “high-threat” environment because they lack stealth (and other advanced “fifth generation” features such as sensor fusion). They argue that criticism of the F-35 from surviving members of the Fighter Mafia (and defense reform movement) is unfounded.
Critics argue that the A-10 will fare poorly against MANPADs and other anti-aircraft weapons because it is designed to fly in the daytime at low-altitudes, citing loss rate statistics and disproportionate losses during Operation Desert Storm. However, a Government Accountability Office report (with loss rate statistics) notes that no clearcut conclusions can be drawn about any aircraft’s survivability once the statistics are adjusted for the number of sorties, altitude, and daytime/nighttime flying. Any aircraft that flew the same number of sorties as the F-117 Nighthawk at medium altitude during nighttime likely would have suffered zero losses.
The Fighter Mafia have been criticized for their lack of combat experience and aeronautical expertise. Only Col Boyd has air combat experience (in the Korean War). Boyd did not fight in the Vietnam War and did not achieve many kills relative to other fighter pilots of his time. Col Riccioni had seen no combat before he was assigned to the Pentagon. Pierre Sprey has been characterized as “a dilettante with an engineering degree but no military experience”.
Lastly, if you’d like to learn more about The Fighter Mafia, there is a 2 part series available for sale (as part of a super-duper cheap monthly subscription service for fans of aviation film & tv footage) on the Aerocinema website: