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The Unsung Hero of American Air Power

WASHINGTON—The documentary played over the large projection screen at the head of the room. From a distance it was like the chronology of any other military battle: A narrative with an auspicious beginning, unsung heroes, stubborn enemy, and a prize.

But in this case it was the intramural service fight in the Pentagon to get a particular tactical aircraft, the A-10, off the ground in the Pentagon. The prize was keeping the Air Force from retiring the plane after what seemed to be a 40-year effort to do so. The heroes were the guys who envisioned, built, and protected it from the boneyard all these years.

When Chuck Myers’ face first appeared on the screen there was a slight but palpable shift in the air hovering over the darkened conference room at the DC offices of the Project for Government Oversight. Myers was what Hollywood movies would call an irreplaceable member of the A-Team, known in this case as the “Fighter Mafia.” He passed away in May at age 91, and for some in the room earlier this month, it was the first time they’d seen his face since some of their previous conclaves there or at the Officers Club at Fort Myer.

There he was, a wizened WWII and Korean War combat flier, former test pilot, “bureaucratic guerilla warrior,” and A-10 godfather. Myers had done many, many rounds with the other services, particularly the Air Force, in defense of the close air support combat planes and lightweight fighters like the F-16 and F-18. He never retired from this mission. The film screened earlier this month, Against All Odds: The Story of the A-10, doesn’t capture all of the wonderful facets of Myers, but it provides a worthy entrance into the life of a man who long ago took the path of productive dissension within the military, and found comfort in his own skin doing so.

“He was a just a very dedicated person and he had enormous stamina. Physically and mentally, he was intense—I mean I talked to Chuck a maybe a week before he died, and this was before he had any sign of going into the hospital—and we were talking all about the military’s problems,” said James P. Stevenson, author of several books on fighter aircraft and the bureaucratic food fights around them. In The Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet [1], he introduces the Fighter Mafia, which also included math whiz and Pentagon analyst Tom Christie, aeronautics specialist Pierre Sprey, test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni, and strategist John Boyd, whose OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) Loop [2]has made him a cult figure in a tightly bound community of scrappy Pentagon reformers.

“They had a moral compass that was always pointed at true north,” Stevenson added. “But with respect to spending taxpayers’ money, with respect to doing the best job to defend the United States, they are immovable. You could drop a million dollars in front of them and they would say, ‘get out of my way.’”

Two things appeared to motivate Myers and the rest of the Fighter Mafia crew, and they were not mutually exclusive: Keeping close air support programs like the A-10 alive, and keeping Pentagon procurement and acquisitions honest. They believe the “grunts on the ground,” need to be protected in combat, and they have always discerned, from the very beginning, an almost unholy alliance between the military bureaucracy and defense contractors to make costly planes and weapons systems at the expense of safety and tactical effectiveness. Not everyone agrees [3] with them of course, and for some time the Air Force has been attempting to retire the A-10 [4](so far, unsuccessfully) in favor of its more all-purpose fighter, the F-35. But these guys have been rallying for the underdogs in such a methodical, relentless manner, that they have become unlikely icons of a much larger narrative.

Courtesy of James P. Stevenson

Courtesy of James P. Stevenson

“They are all superstars as far as I’m concerned,” Stevenson told TAC. Myers, he said, had a particular disdain for how the sausage was made, at one point likening contractors to prostitutes. “What is the difference between a prostitute and contractor?” he asked. “For one thing, a prostitute can do all the things contractors can’t deliver.”

For Myers, the fight for close air support for was born out of his own experience as an Army Forces fighter pilot during World War II. At the young age of 19 he flew B-25s in low-level attack missions against the Japanese. During the Korean War he flew F9F Panther jets for the Navy.

“From [WWII] on, Chuck always felt that the fighting guy on the ground was getting screwed and he was seeing the fighter pilots were being screwed from bad airplanes in the air. It was solidarity with the pilots and grunts—it was that simple,” offered Pierre Sprey.

Sprey was one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids” who eventually became a self-described subversive in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s systems analyses realm. Along with Christie and Boyd, he met Myers sometime around 1964, before Myers worked in the Pentagon.

“He was one of the earliest proponents of what we were doing with the lightweight fighter,” Sprey told TAC. He said in those early years, when Myers was working for Lockheed, he “had an interesting way of not becoming a complete shill.”

Of course, as a former test pilot, Myers was the only flier in the group, and brought with him access to an entire culture of experienced pilots and practical knowledge of air combat. Myers went to Navy Test Pilot School after Korea and graduated in 1954 in a class that included future astronaut John Glenn. He made his mark by setting the world record in 1960 for flying a Delta Dart 1,544 miles an hour, and later helped form the the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

“He had an extraordinarily interesting group of test pilot friends with combat backgrounds,” Sprey recalled, all of whom were working either in the Pentagon or the aerospace industry at the time.

“He was full of endless war stories, all of which were true,” said Sprey, who recalled how, when selling his concepts, Myers would take people out on an aerobatic airplane on his 600-acre Flying M Stock Farm in Gordonsville, Va.

“He’d show them what the ground looked like from the sky, he’d show them how hard it was to see anything from an airplane,” he said, noting the many “convivial seminars” they’d have out on the working farm.

“I was always much more confrontational,” he added, “but Chuck had a nice way of reaching out to people and getting his points across.”

Testing a T-38 for Northrop at Palmdate, California 1961. (Courtesy of James P. Stevenson)

Testing a T-38 for Northrop at Palmdate, California 1961. (Courtesy of James P. Stevenson)

After he left private industry to start his own consulting business in the late 1960s, Myers had the opportunity to join the Pentagon ranks and make a real difference in the services’ thinking about close air support and mission-specific aircraft. He was offered the position of Director of Air Warfare in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD procurement) in 1973. With his comrade in arms Christie in the TacAir shop (systems analysis) in the OSD, they had the ear of the secretary and the ability to get things done.

“Chuck and I teamed up to keep close watch on budget preparation and execution processes, stepping in to restore funding when the Air Force and their allies” attempted to remove it from their lightweight fighter and the A-10 prototype (A-X) programs, Christie told TAC.

“Chuck was critical in these continuing fights,” he noted. “If he had not been in that position … during those critical years between late 1973 and 1975, I am convinced we would have seen the LWF bite the dust and the A-X go down the tubes. He had the complete trust of (then Secretary) Jim Schlesinger, which did not endear him to” the Air Force leadership or many of his colleagues.

“He was a pretty much a maverick,” but he had the ability to make allies and sell these programs inside the establishment, said Sprey. “Chuck was staunch on these concepts,” but “in his nice, non-confrontational way, he got people in R&D on board who would normally be against it.”

After Schlesinger left the “long knives” came out for the A-10 and the F-16, but by that time both programs were well on their way to reality. Myers also left his mark on the future F-18.

That was the mid-70s—a generation ago. But Myers and his “cabal” continued for four decades to protect the A-10 and help build better planes aligned with their core interests—which became more and more divergent from that of the services. Amazing advances in radar communications and weapons systems have made planes more technical, all-purpose, and complex—and more expensive. They like to point to the troubled F-35 as a prime example.

During this time, Myers embarked on many personal projects and worked with Air Force and Marine officers who follow the Fighter Mafia code and John Boyd’s philosophies. The group, now far from the Mad Men days, are tight as ever, meeting in Arlington in the shadow of the Pentagon, and, until his death, at Myers’ farm where he lived with his wife of many years, Sallie.

But now they have acolytes: Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan War veterans, as well as active duty and reserve officers and pilots. To see the reverence of the younger men and women in the room at the recent movie screening indicates that the message of that cabal has maintained its salience as the services fight over billions in defense dollars today.

I don’t know anywhere else to go to find a group more dedicated to making things better,” Myers told this reporter a little more than three years ago. [5]

“He was just a special person,” said Stevenson, who was bequeathed the gold watch Myers got from Convair when he beat the world record for a single-engine jet aircraft with the Delta Dart. The Air Force gave the official recognition to a service pilot who fell slightly short of Myers’ speed because during the Cold War, a uniformed officer made for a better story. Over the years, that watch had become a metaphor for hand-in-glove cynicism, where the military and the defense industry worked together to advance themselves, often at the expense of merit and the truth.

Chuck Myers “was primus inter pares,” said Stevenson, “first among equals.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "The Unsung Hero of American Air Power"

#1 Comment By LMIDF On December 1, 2016 @ 11:22 am

Reminder: Pierre Sprey spent the better part of his career producing jazz records and managing water-treatment facilities. His defense expertise is questionable at best. It’s really amazing that someone who never worked at Fairchild-Republic and had been out of military procurement for a while is considered important to the design and development of A-10.

And let’s conveniently forget the lackluster performance of the A-10 in Desert Storm, naturally. When it comes praising the A-10’s performance in the Gulf War, let’s also forget how reformers railed against the Maverick which scored most of the Warthog’s tank kills in that conflict.

The “military reform” movement might be taken more seriously if their arguments weren’t so transparently ridiculous to actual SMEs.

#2 Comment By Harry Hillaker On December 1, 2016 @ 4:13 pm

Sorry, few outside the media take Sprey or any of his allies very seriously. It’s really unfair to mix up Myers with Sprey or Riccione, they did very different things and were hardly what one would call a team.

Pierry Sprey works for CDI, which has opposed every single major defense system proposed going back to 1970. They opposed the most successful air combat fighter ever, the F-15. The opposed the E-3 AWACS. They opposed building nuclear powered carriers in favor of much smaller, less effective ones. Sprey’s preferred light fighter was much too light and would have left a lot of pilots dead, with no radar and only a gun and one AIM-9. He has half-disowned the F-16 as being too complex and expensive, whereas it is actually the absolute floor for what a modern light fighter can have and still be effective.

Look, everyone loves the A-10. I love the A-10. It’s had it’s life nicely extended by a series of basically unopposed (from an air defense standpoint) conflicts stretching back two decades. But advances in air defenses mean it is only useful for these lowest intensity, counter-insurgency type conflicts. On a modern battlefield, it simply would not survive. It is too austere and flies in too dangerous a regime to survive, no matter how tough it is. But it will eventually have to be replaced, and that replacement will probably be something very different. In point of fact, while the A-10 gets all the press, the single most effective CAS aircraft of the past 15 years hasn’t been a fighter, or an attack aircraft, it’s been a bomber, the B-1 – the very aircraft Sprey exerted massive energies trying to kill. Endless payload and range, advanced sensors, plus an ability to transit the battlefield at 700 mph or better, have made it the best CAS aircraft in the world, dropping PGMs from 30,000 ft.

Screw Sprey, and Riccione. Both are hacks, using cherry-picked and obsolete data to push arguments already refuted a dozen times by others far more in the know. As an example, Sprey routinely quotes air-to-air missile effectiveness rates from the 60s, even though AAMs have improved exponentially since that time in terms of kill-ratio or any other metric he chooses to cite. He Is one of the last of that lamentable group of whiz kids who did massive damage to defense procurement (actual weapons systems being the LEAST of those damages, the structural changes they made to procurement made everything more expensive and difficult to produce) and who cannot pass from the scene too quickly.

And they work for one of the most reliably leftist, anti-defense orgs in the nation, Center for Defense Information CDI.

#3 Comment By Eric On December 2, 2016 @ 9:39 pm

Sadly, the DOD is now primarily a make-work welfare office for the “conservatives.” We could defend THIS COUNTRY just fine on 20% of what we currently spend… the rest is nothing more than a drag on the economy with a return on investment of ZERO.

#4 Comment By Chuck Spinney On December 3, 2016 @ 10:14 am

I want to comment on the ad hominem comments made by LMIDF and “Harry Hillaker.” First of all, let me be clear about my biases: I worked with Mssrs Sprey and Myers and Colonel Riccioni from the mid-1970s, first as an Air Force officer and then as a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. They were my close friends, To be sure, they were controversial (as was I), but all people who try to reform a system or create new understanding are controversial in the eyes of those trying to preserve a status quo. Did not Popes condemn and lie about Galileo? Sprey, Myers, and Riccioni are not in the same league as Galileo, but LMIDF and ”Hillaker” are not Pope. But like Galileo’s persecutors in the Inquisition, their argument includes outright lies and fabrication — albeit in this case pathetic lies. Why do I say this?

First of all, like the Inquisitors, the authors do not even have the courage to give their real names. That is obvious in the case of LMIDF, but it is not so obvious and is particularly disgusting in the case of “Harry Hillaker.”

Harry Hillaker was also my friend; and although we were not close, we were on very cordial terms. I first met Harry in the mid-1970s. At that time, he was the chief engineer for the F-16 at General Dynamics, and Harry worked closely with Sprey (and Colonel Boyd) and Colonel Riccioni during the YF-16’s crucial early design phase. This is very documented in a number of books.

Harry Hillaker is also DEAD! He died in February 2009, and defense reporter Bob Cox (also my friend) wrote a laudatory obituary in the Ft Worth Star Telegram that can be found at this link: [6].

Note the references to Sprey and Riccioni in the obituary.

Note also that the fake “Harry Hilaker” can not spell even spell Riccioni’s name correctly and he or she writes as if Riccioni is still alive and working at CDI. Riccioni is also DEAD — he died in April 2015 at 91; readers interested in learning about his remarkable and admirable career can read my remembrance of him at this link: [7].

LMIDF subtly insinuates that Sprey has limited experience in defense and spent most of his career in waste management and jazz recording. For the record Sprey, and mechanical engineer with advanced degrees in mathematical statistics and French literature, began working on defense programs at a very high level in the Pentagon in the 1960s (after having previously worked at Grumman on weapons designs). While he started his jazz recording business in the 1980s, Sprey has remained actively involved in all sorts of defense issues to this day. He never managed water treatment facilities, as LMIDF alleges, although he did use his expertise in statistics to analyze environmental problems on a few occasions.

I could go on — but it would serve no purpose, both commenters are cowards who use the propagation powers of the internet to smear people while hiding beneath a blanket of anonymity.

#5 Comment By Todd E. Pierce On December 3, 2016 @ 10:57 am

Great article Kelley, and analysis of military procurement which has historically been full of corruption down to the present day. This comes at a cost in lives to American service-members and financially to the American taxpayer. Unsurprisingly, attacks on critics of corrupt military procurement come from the ranks of the ignorant and uninformed or else from the defense industry flacks and/or hacks. Or from the lower ranks trying to impress the higher ranks who are part of the corrupt system. In any case, they have a need to pretend credibility with their in-house acronyms, such as SMEs. As my own military experience has all been on the ground, I won’t pretend to know what an SME is but I do know BS when I read it.

Perhaps I missed it but there doesn’t appear to be a reference to the F-16, let alone a negative comparison between it and the A-10. So being curious who “Harry Hillaker” is, or in this case, was as he passed away years ago I quickly found out, I did a quick search of his name online (yes pretend Mr. Hillaker, there is that capability today).

Here is an excerpt of an interview with the real Hillaker, posted here: [8]

It reads: “Hillaker, who lives about ten minutes away from the F-16 production line in Fort Worth, is always pleased to talk about the F-16 and his part in its development.
 
In the late 1960s, you found yourself involved in what was called the “fighter mafia.” Where did that name come from?
That was the title given to the small group of people responsible for the conceptual design of the lightweight fighter, what became the F-16. The group had three core members: John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, and me. We were given the “mafia” title by people in the Air Force back in the mid-60s. We were viewed as an underground group that was challenging the establishment. We were a threat of sorts.”

Seems the real Hillaker, who was proud to be associated with the F-16, was also damn proud to be associated with Pierre Sprey and the other members of the “fighter mafia.”

Seems pretty sick when choosing a pseudonym to hide one’s ignorance behind that one chooses the name of a dead person. But choosing that particular name is even more revealing of the ignorance behind the pretend Mr. Hillaker’s comment.

Furthermore, the biggest obstacle militaries such as that of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have had to military success has been the suppression of dissent and any information questioning policy, particularly military policy. Attacking CDI as “left-wing” for their well-founded dissent to ill-advised and corrupt military procurement takes this ignorance to an even more dangerous dimension. That is, as it could have the effect of costing even more American lives when we allow the defense industry to shove ineffective and inefficient machines into the hands of those who actually may need them to save their own lives.

#6 Comment By Winslow T. Wheeler On December 3, 2016 @ 2:09 pm

How sad that the first two commenters to this excellent article about Chuck Myers’ passing away think they merit the opportunity to launch ad hominem attacks on a friend and colleague of Chuck’s.
The target, Pierre Sprey, is a friend and colleague of mine, so I will confine myself to factual assertions with links to documents (not internet fluff) to keep my personal bias in favor of Pierre out of the discussion.
First, read the comments signed by “LMIDF” and “Harry Hillaker.” Neither is willing to reveal his/her real identity. As already pointed out in other comments, the Harry Hillaker who worked on the F-16 design is dead; the individual sending this message is a phony, presumably some sort of internet personality who aspires to assert he has Mr. Hillaker’s aeronautic expertise or at least wants to make the reader think so. If you want to know what the real Harry Hillaker had to say about Pierre Sprey, read the 1991 interview of Hillaker at [8]. There are nine references by Hillaker to Pierre.
As for “LMIDF,” I suspect the LM in his (her?) moniker is for Lockheed Martin. He/she asserts Pierre “had been out of military procurement for a while” when the A-10 was designed and developed. Not true; he was up to his eyeballs in what became the A-10 (and centrally responsible for its many extraordinary characteristics).
“LMIDF” also asserts the A-10’s performance in Operation Desert Storm was “lackluster.” The Commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces at the time, Lt Gen Charles Horner, didn’t think so, saying “I take back all the bad things I’ve ever said about the A-10s. I love them. They’re saving our asses.” ( [9]).
For details, read William Smallwood’s book on the A-10 in Desert Storm, “Warthog.” At Amazon at [10].)
Read still more in GAO’s 235 page report on the air war in Desert Storm, and if you really want to talk Lockheed products, read how the much hyped F-117 actually did almost none of what the Air Force tried to credit it with. (For example, read how the F-117 failed to take out the Iraqi air defenses in the first hour of the first night as claimed; see pp- 133-137 in [11].)
The faux Harry Hillaker also tries to poormouth A-10 survivability: “On a modern battlefield, it simply would not survive.” One of the Air Force’s most vocal attacks on the A-10, survivability was just fine in Desert Storm against modern Iraqi air defenses (which the F-117 failed to suppress, especially where the A-10 operated). See more on this in the GAO report on pp. 99-102.
One suspects that these ad hominem attacks against Pierre are not really about him; it’s about the A-10 and Lockheed’s new over-hyped aircraft, the F-35, which all of a sudden may not have such a secure clutch on DOD money as it did before Donald Trump (a critic) and Gen. Mattis, who apparently cares about performance in combat not on congressional pork lists, came to prospective office.
Want to read more about the F-35; check out the materials at that oh-so left-wing website where the Center for Defense Information moved in 2012. Find many F-35 materials at [12].
By the way, CDI, described by the faux Harry Hillaker as “ the one of the most reliably leftist, anti-defense orgs in the nation’ was put together by two retired Navy admirals. Judge for yourself just how anti-defense or left-wing you find the materials there.

#7 Comment By LMIDF On December 8, 2016 @ 3:21 am

You misrepresent other people’s words without context, Mr. Wheeler

Namely, because your Horner quotes comes from 3 days into the war. Let’s see what he had to say a little bit later.

(Source: [13])

“A-10s vs. F-16s

Q: Did the war have any effect on the Air Force’s view of the A-10?

A: No. People misread that. People [like Sprey :^)] were saying that airplanes are too sophisticated and that they wouldn’t work in the desert, that you didn’t need all this high technology, that simple and reliable was better, and all that.

Well, first of all, complex does not mean unreliable. We’re finding that out. For example, you have a watch that uses transistors rather than a spring. It’s infinitely more reliable than the windup watch that you had years ago. That’s what we’re finding in the airplanes.

Those people . . . were always championing the A-10. As the A-10 reaches the end of its life cycle– and it’s approaching that now–it’s time to replace it, just like we replace every airplane, including, right now, some early versions of the F-16.

Since the line was discontinued, [the A-10’s champions] want to build another A-10 of some kind. The point we were making was that we have F-16s that do the same job.

Then you come to people who have their own reasons-good reasons to them, but they don’t necessarily compute to me-who want to hang onto the A-10 because of the gun. Well, the gun’s an excellent weapon, but you’ll find that most of the tank kills by the A-10 were done with Mavericks and bombs. So the idea that the gun is the absolute wonder of the world is not true.

Q: This conflict has shown that?

A: It shows that the gun has a lot of utility, which we always knew, but it isn’t the principal tank-killer on the A-IO. The [Imaging Infrared] Maverick is the big hero there. That was used by the A-10s and the F-16s very, very effectively in places like Khafji.

The other problem is that the A-10 is vulnerable to hits because its speed is limited. It’s a function of thrust, it’s not a function of anything else. We had a lot of A-10s take a lot of ground fire hits. Quite frankly, we pulled the A-10s back from going up around the Republican Guard and kept them on Iraq’s [less formidable] front-line units. That’s line if you have a force that allows you to do that. In this case, we had F-16s to go after the Republican Guard.

Q: At what point did you do that?

A: I think I had fourteen airplanes sitting on the ramp having battle damage repaired, and I lost two A- 10s in one day [February 15], and I said, “I’ve had enough of this.” It was when we really started to go after the Republican Guard.

Initially, much of the air assets were devoted to strategic targets, to make sure we got those down, while we were also hitting the frontline forces. As we killed off the research and development stuff-storage, those kinds of targets-we brought more and more assets into the Kuwait Theater of Operation. We really started heating the battle up in the KTO.”

So, actually, Horner came to different conclusions. It’s awfully convenient that you use the quote from the very beginning than the one that came after the actual results of the campaign.

For curiosity’s sake, Mr. Wheeler, let’s take a look at Horner’s opinion on the F-117.

“Q: We’ve seen the bomb going down the air shaft. That was the F- 117. It played a huge role in the air war.

A: It did. The A-10s and the F-16s did a lot of work that was not really heralded. They basically kept pressure on Saddam during the daytime. He could not move his forces. He just had to sit there and absorb punishment during the daytime. The F-117s, F-111s and F-15Es gained a lot of positive notoriety because the taping system allowed you to see what they did. They were very, very efficient. You’d send a -117 out and it would kill one or two targets, bang. That was it-every night. In past wars, that would have taken several days of bombing by a whole armada. You saw the building take the one 2,000-pound bomb. To take out that building in World War II would have taken a raid of B-17s– 150 or 300 airplanes. That’s the benefit you get out of the precision weapon. Furthermore, the -117 strikes anywhere at will. There is nothing to stop it.”

Oops.

It’s not slander to point out Sprey’s work in the Enviro Control company. Nor is it slander to not consider limelighting in Fallows columns to qualify as “being involved in military procurement.”

And yes, LM does stand for Lockheed Martin. It’s a tongue-in-cheek abbreviation for Lockheed Martin Internet Defense Force, since there are people that seem to think any defense of the JSF is coming from MIC shills.