The Fighter Mafia was a controversial group of U.S. Air Force officers and civilian defense analysts who, in the 1970s, advocated the use of John Boyd and Thomas P. Christie's Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) theory as the sole driver in designing fighter aircraft.
The mathematical model they developed enabled quantitative (number-driven) one-to-one comparison of the performance of various aircraft in terms of air combat maneuvering, independent of real world flight testing. The model was used to identify deficiencies in service and proposed designs of the time. The Fighter Mafia influenced the specifications for the F-X, and went on to independently develop specifications for the Light Weight Fighter. The group was also instrumental in a return to air-combat maneuverability being the defining quality of fighter planes, after the Vietnam War showed that long-range missile systems of the time were insufficient as the sole deciding factor in air combat.
The next generation of warplanes combined both maneuverability (which the group advocated) as well as the high-tech electronics and missiles (that they opposed). Aircraft in this generation included the F-14, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18. The Fighter Mafia attracted considerable controversy and the actual extent of their influence and contribution to shaping US fighter design is a matter of debate.
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 strategic bombing over the fighter.
In the 1960s, both the U.S. Air Force and 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. 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, 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" MiG-21, and losing the fight more often than expected. Heavy and poorly maneuverable fighters imagined by the F-X 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 sophisticated radar and missile systems 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 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.
Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard, who entered office with the Nixon administration in 1969, were interested in these studies and threw their support behind the notion. In May 1971, Congress issued a critical report of the F-14 and F-15 and advocated spending $50 million on developing an alternative lightweight fighter. This was followed by the assignment of $12 million in the 1972 fiscal year budget for the LWF. 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, as well as an 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, and the F-16 would become a highly-versatile, highly advanced multi-role fighter bomber.
The Fighter Mafia attracted considerable controversy and the actual extent of their contribution to shaping US fighter design is a matter of debate. Since the members of the group were in effect preaching a new US air combat doctrine, the expertise and qualifications of the group were the subject of scrutiny and criticism by defense experts and both USAF and USN officers. Neither Col. Boyd nor Col Riccioni had air combat experience but both (especially Col. Boyd) were brilliant aircraft analysts. Col. Riccioni was criticized for his lack of air combat experience, having seen no combat before his assignment to the Pentagon. Later, after cornering a senior officer, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, General John C. Meyer, at a party and ranting against the F-15, was given the choice between a combat tour in Vietnam or a desk job in Korea, and chose the latter. Similarly, Sprey had no military expertise and scarce professional experience with fighter aircraft prior to his participation in the Fighter Mafia. While Sprey's education included aeronautical engineering and he wanted to be a plane designer, he later abandoned that path to focus on probabilities, statistics and operational research. In addition, Sprey was noted to have exaggerated his participation in both the testing of the A-10, the design of the F-16 and in NASA's operation of its F-15 test aircraft.
In retrospect, the group's greatest contribution was the promotion of E-M as a basis for evaluating and designing aircraft for air combat maneuvering. At a time when the US military was seemingly obsessed with technological solutions, the Fighter Mafia acted as the opposite extreme from which a more balanced approach to fighter design would emerge. However, this can be seen as ultimately a defeat of the Fighter Mafia and its ideals. While this balanced approach would result in the highly successful F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18 Hornet and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, it did so at the betrayal of the Fighter Mafia's campaign for the US military to adopt a single-role, low-tech fighter in large numbers. The F-16 was further compromised by Air Force insistence that it be capable of having a maximum G-level of 9Gs which added considerable weight to the air frame. This higher G capability was, however, limited to a very narrow flight envelope.
The group's uncompromising disdain of and campaign against advanced weapons, radars, ECM, and multi-role designs, what they characterized as "gold-plating", would prove erroneous. For example, the Fighter Mafia argued that the ground attack mission should be handled by more appropriate, dedicated aircraft such as the A-10, which has had an middling record in that area, seeing disproportionately high losses in Desert Storm while attempting low-altitude strikes as designed and that the addition of more electronics to the F-16 caused its weight to rise to the point where it lost its edge in dogfighting, the mission for which it had been designed. The vision of the group would have seen the US build thousands of dedicated short-ranged, low-tech, fighter-only aircraft to counter Soviet air power on a numerical superiority basis, a plan that was never endorsed by the USAF or the USN. Instead, the success of US military aircraft has shown that the same technology would protect aircraft from missiles in an increasingly sensor-saturated battlefield, and would enable the multi-mission capabilities of modern aircraft. And while the US aircraft has engaged in few air-to-air encounters since Vietnam, the trend continues to show that missiles and in particular increasingly mature long-range missiles are the primary weapon of choice in modern combat, a trend that started as far back as the Vietnam War but continues to be downplayed by the Fighter Mafia.
Although Sprey has recently often portrayed himself as a "principal designer" of the F-16, he actually worked as a defense analyst whose group contributed to the design requirements selected in awarding the contract. The actual plane that entered service included the long-range missiles, sensors and multi-role capability that he continues to criticize today. Interestingly, the Fighter Mafia can be considered presently active, as Sprey has become an often-cited critic of the F-35, including using comparisons of the accident rates of the early F-16 design that most strongly felt his design influence to argue that the F-35 ought to be equally unsafe.
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