Sunday, October 6, 2013

Internet throwdown - Fred Reed vs ‘the Fighter Mafia’

An interesting article with the title Pay Attention and Think Fast was posted recently at takimag by Fred Reed.

Mr Reed attacks the so called ‘Fighter Mafia’, a group of US officers and civilian analysts that gained fame in the 1970’s and 1980’s by arguing that the US military and its procurement program were in dire need of reforms.
Led by Colonel John Boyd the group promoted several scientific theories such as the Energy–maneuverability theory and the OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop. In terms of weapon systems they were critical of overdependence on ‘magical’ technologic solutions and instead they wanted cheaper, more reliable and more numerous weapons.

At the time they had the facts on their side since overreliance on technology had led to poor performance of the US military in the Vietnam War. The USAF had invested in radar and long range missiles for its fighters expecting them to destroy enemy aircraft at long ranges. They even went so far as to remove the guns from their fighters as dead weight. Unfortunately the ‘miracle’ weapons did not work as expected in battle conditions and the USAF had to hastily reintroduce guns and the necessary training for its pilots.
Now to every point there is a counterpoint. Here are some interesting quotes from the article:

'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 F15 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 Reformers were, except for Lind, con men. They were also spectacularly wrong, as the Gulf War was to prove. More of this shortly.’

Here is another quote that will probably anger fans of Russian tanks!
‘Covering them was fascinating if depressing. They said that Soviet armor was “simple and robust.” I went to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and talked to the enlisted men who worked with captured Soviet tanks. Yes, they said, the Russian tanks were simple, but robust? They broke down constantly and were exhausting to drive because of stiff manual transmissions.’

They regularly (and, I think, deliberately) confused complex with unreliable.

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.

Quoting from Air Force Magazine:
What really took the ginger out of the Reform movement was the Gulf War. In that war, high technology undeniably worked. Its star performers included the much-maligned F-15 and all of the other systems that had been attacked by the Reformers.

Of the 40 USAF aerial victories, 33 were by F-15s. As for weapons used, 23 of the victories were by AIM-7Ms, five were by AIM-9Ms, and only two were with guns.
These are interesting arguments and although I haven’t read extensively on the ‘Fighter Mafia’ I do understand some of the concepts they introduced.

For example their opposition to the F-15 was due to the cost of the aircraft and the fact that the USAF was constantly building heavy planes with a low ratio of power/weight. Such planes suffered in terms of maneuverability and acceleration compared to the more lightweight Soviet fighters.
As for the criticism on radar and long range missiles it is still valid today. A plane that has stealthy exterior but a powerful radar will be like a flashlight in a dark room. If it uses it will signal its position to the enemy. If it doesn’t then it will be flying in the dark. Also long range missiles like the AIM-7 had a poor record in combat. The AIM-120 is supposed to be lethal but it has only been used against opponents like Iraq and Serbia…

Moreover one should be careful in evaluating complex weapon systems based on their performance against a developing country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not have the military equipment or the training to go head to head with the US. (However he did have equipment that was quite good for the time, including T-72 tanks and Mig-29 fighters. I am also skeptical of the counterargument that Iraqi forces had ‘monkey’ models of Soviet weapons. Those are Russian excuses for the poor performance of their weapon systems)
In any case I think both sides have valid arguments.

For those who want to read more on the Fighter Mafia’s arguments there is the ebook ‘America’s Defence Meltdown’, this interview of Winslow Wheeler at C-Span and an interview of Pierre Sprey at youtube.


  1. Problem was not that Iraqi weapons were monkey models (though many, like El Babel tank, certainly were), but that they were used by monkeys. People are more important than hardware; put a soldier in a monkey aircraft and a monkey in best possible aircraft, and soldier will win.

    1. Easy on the racism captain Picard!

      The Iraqis were monkeys? Why? Because they used Soviet weapons and Soviet doctrine? What about the Koreans in 1950? Were they monkeys too? What about the Syrians and Egyptians vs Israel.

      Somehow everyone who uses Soviet weapons ends up on the losing side. Must be the monkeys…

    2. Iraqis were monkeys because their leadership at all levels was grossly ispoliticized and incompetent (to the point that they refused responsibility and central command had to micromanage everything), training was unrealistic and troops were more motivated with running away that fighting for the regime they hated. Iraqi artillery proved incapable of shifting fire away from predetermined areas and would keep firing at these areas even after the enemy has long passed them; air force proved useless for both supporting the troops and fighting the enemy air force; in Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's modern military got its ass handed to it by a predominantly light infantry force, Iraqi air force proved useless in supporting the ground troops, and only won air superiority once Iranians could not launch aircraft any more due to lack of spare parts; before that, Iraqi aircraft ran away as soon as they noticed Iranian fighter nearby. As for motivation, during the Gulf War, Iraqi troops surrendered to journalists.

      Iraqis did not use Soviet weapons but locally-produced models, and neither did they use the Soviet doctrine. Soviet doctrine for example called for SAMs to radiate only occasionally and reposition themselves after the each shot. Iraqis fixed SAMs in place, left radar constantly turned on and did not bother to move them at all.

      North Koreans were winning against South Korean and local US troops until they overextended supply lines. They were only pushed back once UN troops arrived, as they were outnumbered and outmatched. Yet when Chinese intervened - also using Soviet weapons - they pushed UN troops, which had reached Chinese border by then, out of the North Korea and back to the current border between two Koreas, only stopping due to overextended supply lines.

    3. ‘Iraqis were monkeys…blah blah blah’

      You can change Iraqis with Soviets and the main point will still be valid. The Soviet army of WWII had similar problems and thus suffered disproportionate losses against an opponent they outnumbered in men, tanks and aircraft. Soviet weapons were poorly designed or to put it better they were not survivable. Soviet tactics were inflexible since orders had to be carried out exactly as planned regardless of the tactical situation. As you can see countries that adopted the Soviet model had the same problems with their armed forces. Since Soviet troops did not have to face NATO forces in battle you can pretend only Soviet allies had these problems.

      ‘Iraqis did not use Soviet weapons but locally-produced models, …’

      Whatever you say. T-55, T-62, T-72 etc etc were not Soviet built, they came from Mars. In any case can you cut down on the racism? The only people I’ve seen get so upset with the poor performance of Soviet weapon systems are members of the Russia Strooooooong party.