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40 Years of the ‘Fighter Mafia’

At a glance it seems like any other fraternal convocation in Washington—dazzling credentials, even more impressive name-dropping. These military sages have been meeting weekly for four decades to talk shop, and on this night of nights their camaraderie is expressed in so many anecdotes, many of which date back to the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

Wednesday nights at the round tables in the Officers Club at Fort Myer: beer, wine, and exhaustive talk about fighter aircraft, weapons systems, combat vehicles, ships, politics, and the Pentagon budgetary labyrinth—what more could a klatch of the defense world’s best and brightest want in their downtime?

“Typically, there’d be ten to fifteen people for a couple of hours, lots of beer,” says Norman Polmar [1], advisor to three U.S. Navy secretaries, who has been coming to the group for some 20 years. He was on point to offer newcomers a semi-official history at the gathering’s 40th anniversary meeting on Wednesday night. “We sit at a couple of tables and discuss military issues—I’d guess half the people here are active [military and Defense Department employees], the other half retired. They bring the perspective of people who are making day-to-day decisions at the Pentagon.”

But this is much more than a social hour for flyboys and engineers, test pilots and whiz kids—though all are represented here. Peel back the layers and the glamorous resumes and this roomful of genteel men (and a few women) reveals a shadowy reformist element once dubbed the “Fighter Mafia” and what one founding member has called a “conspiracy” of “bureaucratic guerilla warriors.”  Why else would a writer like Andrew Cockburn [2]—author of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy—be wandering about, mixing it up with Pentagon critic Winslow Wheeler [3], and Danielle Brian [4], head of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO)?


This group is not radical in the obvious sense, but they’ve been doing battle within the system (and despite it), members say. They are committed to reforming the defense industry, not tearing it down. They’ve occupied coveted positions at the top and have advised cabinet members, service chiefs, and members of Congress. They have brought ingenuity and better technology to flagging systems and fought like back-alley bullies to get their reforms through.

“I don’t know anywhere else to go to find a group more dedicated to making things better,” says Charles “Chuck” Myers [5], who flew B-25 missions against Japanese shipping in World War II and later became a fabled test pilot—setting a new World Speed Record of 1544 mph with the F-106 in 1959—and eventually the Pentagon’s director for air warfare. In that role, he was able—with the help of “the group”—to push successfully for the lightweight fighter program that incorporated the F-15, F-16, and later F-18 planes into the fleet during the 1960s and 1970s.

Together, the men at this gathering have also been credited with advancing close air support (CAS), including the design and introduction of the A-10 “Warthog” into the Air Force. Today, members debate and rail against the V-22 “Osprey” [6] tilt-rotor, F-35 [7] fighter, and the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS [8]). As they have from the beginning, when they pushed against the extravagances loading down Vietnam War-era planes, they continue to believe more can be done with less—and that includes in the federal defense budget. They are a bureaucratic anomaly in Washington.

“Most of us spent a year in Vietnam,” says Mike Burski, a former Air Force pilot who flew A-10s and has been coming to the group for a couple of decades. Here, he says, “it was always possible to talk about things that could not be talked about anywhere else.”

To understand the group is to go back to its origins. Founding member John Boyd [9], military strategist and “guru,” is best known for developing the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) Loop [10] concept, which when applied correctly gives a pilot advantage over an adversary in combat operations. Boyd passed away from cancer in 1997, but he was ever present in spirit at Wednesday night’s event.

“Brilliant stuff,” says group attendee Benjamin Works, also an Air Force veteran, referring to Boyd’s strategy lectures.

Boyd and co-founder Tom Christie, a mathematician who worked for the Air Force as a ballistics analyst, met during their time at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida during the Vietnam War. They hit it off and quietly pursued what is known now as the Energy Maneuverability theory [11], or “EM,” as a new test of aircraft performance. According to lore, Boyd and Christie—who was on hand Wednesday evening as humble master of ceremonies—would “steal” time on Air Force computers to develop their theory, which today is standard doctrine.

Boyd and Christie started the group on a very small scale in Florida, fueled more by beer and frivolity than anything else. Things got serious when Boyd and later Christie were brought to work at the Pentagon. They met Pierre Sprey [12], a self-described “subversive” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, then occupied by Robert McNamara. Sprey was one of the “whiz kids, [13]” but he believed the Air Force was doing everything wrong in Vietnam. He was an early proponent of close air support, which led to the development of the A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog.”

“We were bureaucratic guerrilla warriors, fighting the system and deploying whatever underground means we could use,” including whistleblowing, leaking, and “suborning” members of Congress, Sprey says, half-joking.

“John Boyd came in as a maverick,” Sprey recalled. Initially, Boyd was brought to the Pentagon in the 1960s by a general who disliked Sprey’s ideas on close air support and was pulling together a group of eggheads to “disgrace” him. When the general left Boyd alone in the room with Sprey they “became fast friends, co-conspirators.” The rest is history.

By the time the group held its first Washington meeting in 1973, Sprey, Boyd, Christie, and test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni had designed the concept that was directly implemented as the F-15 and F-16 fighter programs—which have served as the core of American air power for the past 40 years. The group came to be known as the “Fighter Mafia” [14] and expanded their circle to include other like-minded individuals with the same goals for reforming programs and building better weapons systems for the military.

“I’m proud of what we achieved, but it was only a drop in the bucket” relative to the massive size of the Pentagon’s budget and operations, says Sprey. “At least we got a few things done.”

Today, he adds, “we’re a network of subversives trying to cut the defense budget and campaigning against things that don’t work.”

Christie and Polmar note that the meetings, far from being frozen in amber, are still attracting active-duty military and civilians in the Pentagon workforce who are eager to get down to a granular level on specific programs and policies and want a forum for unconventional ideas.

As if to prove that the 40th anniversary celebration was as much to pass the baton to a younger generation as to acknowledge the past, two young Navy acolytes of John Boyd’s theories turned out for their first meeting on Wednesday. They told TAC they had just read one of the many books written about Boyd and were hoping to find guidance in the group. They would not, however, give their names.

“They wouldn’t want to do that,” Christie says, winking. “We made a lot of things happen,” he had noted earlier, when all gathered for a few moments alongside the round tables, now scattered with beer and wine bottles and plates of appetizers. “You young guys, you can make things happen. But you got to do it under the radar.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "40 Years of the ‘Fighter Mafia’"

#1 Comment By T. Sledge On September 20, 2013 @ 10:36 am

As a (very) low level enlisted man in the USAF during the last few years of the Vietnam War, I am reminded of the spectacular success of the first “smart bombs” in disabling a bridge in North Vietnam in one pass over the site, something that conventional bombs had failed to do after numerous runs over the same target.

I am also reminded that the sensors dropped over “the Ho Chi Minh” trail, that were supposed to pick up the movement of traffic along that route, facilitated several “successful” missions that resulted in the death of a couple of herders, and a dozen unencumbered water buffalo.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 20, 2013 @ 10:50 am

Interesting article. And in some ways painful, because I am a fan ofSec Dumsfeld and wish he had pushed for a saner response to 9/11.

His primary missin was to transform the military for a 21 Century theater(s). And I do think he was the man for that task.

My altime favorite video game was the F-22 Dominance Air Fighter, the precursor to the even more expensive F-35.

I have not been convinced that the battles against nonstate actors will be won by merely bettertechnologically advanced fighters. And its budget given the federal monies reality and the economy are are worth what it will provide,

Keenly aware of the employment issues at stake. The ultimate hostage position.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 20, 2013 @ 10:51 am

It would be cool to sit amongst this crew and listen.

#4 Comment By Andrew On September 20, 2013 @ 11:47 am

Norman Polmar is a true maverick and a man with a massive, and well deserved, international reputation. He is also the best American specialist on Soviet/Russian Navy. I was surprised, sort of, to read his name among those in Fighter Mafia but it seems reasonable that such a man would be among this group. Strangely enough, Elmo Zumwalt could have been the part of this group.

#5 Comment By Adam On September 20, 2013 @ 11:54 am

Internal subversion and dissent within a bureaucracy probably do more to improve that bureaucracy than any oversite or “leadership.” If you want to know what is really wrong in any large group, just ask the frontline grunts and you’ll get your answer.

#6 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On September 20, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

Boyd would say he claimed that sensors wouldn’t work … so his stint running spook base was possibly punishment (Coram’s biography claims it was a $2.5B windfall for IBM). spook base reference gone 404 but lives on at wayback machine

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 20, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

“…but he believed the Air Force was doing everything wrong in Vietnam.”

True, but tactical errors are not strategic errors.

The tactical error is waging the battle with the wrong military methods, but the overarching strategic error is deciding to wage a war at all of choice in support of colonialism and outside financial interests, against an indigenous independence movement.

The Air Force wasn’t doing everything wrong in Viet Nam – other than try to carry out a wrongful war, evil in itself, but mandated by “just following orders” – the greatest wrong is reserved to those who propagated a war that killed four million human beings for no good reason – elites and special interests in Washington, on Wall Street and in every congressional district the military-industrial complex has insinuated its presence and thus influence into.

This is worse than a mistake, it’s a crime.

#8 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On September 20, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

Boyd would tell a story about evaluating USAF air-to-air missile prior to vietnam … in a review showing it hit its target every time. Boyd said it would be looking to hit 10%. They argued, he said rerun the film and then said stop (just before missile hit flare on drone) and asked what kind of guidance the missile had. They said heat seeking, he asks more questions to find out what specific kind of heat seeking. They eventually say pinpoint. He then asks what is the hottest part of jet … they say the engine … he says not, its in the plume way behind the jet … the only time it hits if fired straight up tailpipe and the target isn’t maneuvering. They gather up their material and leave … burying his analysis.

Roll forward to vietnam and it turns out Boyd’s analysis is correct. Then USAF commander in vietnam grounds all jets until they are converted to sidewinders (better than twice hit rate) … within 3 months commander is replaced and called back to commander having violated major rule in pentagon … reducing USAF budget share (loosing fewer jets & pilots and not using USAF missile) and increasing Navy budget share (using Navy missile). Pentagon USAF wasn’t concerned about events in Vietnam … separate from how it affected their budget.

#9 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 20, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

“Internal subversion and dissent within a bureaucracy probably do more to improve that bureaucracy than any oversite or “leadership.” If you want to know what is really wrong in any large group, just ask the frontline grunts and you’ll get your answer.”

Hence, Edward Snowden, Everyman Hero (may his tribe increase), who didn’t just show the technical flaws in the imperium like your garden variety maverick, but revealed an unaccountable bureaucracy secretly undermining the very freedoms it was sold to the public as protecting.

#10 Comment By Blacktail On September 21, 2013 @ 9:25 am

This may seem petty in a discussion on a group of influential policy makers like the Fighter Mafia, but Boyd was dead-on about that heat-seeking air-to-air missile.

This weapon was the AIM-4 Falcon, something very few people today remember, and rightfully-so. As Lynn Wheeler pointed out, it was replaced by the missile that the Navy used instead of the Falcon, a weapon that soon became a legend; the AIM-9 Sidewinder, which was so effective that it’s still the primary short-range air-to-air missile of the US military today, in 2013.

But what of the Falcon? It was a loser, and the USAF quickly dumped them for the Sidewinder once they tested them under actual combat conditions over Vietnam.

And here’s the cold, hard numbers on what the Falcon achieved over ‘Nam;

5 kills out of 54 combat launches. A 10% pK (probability-of-kill) ratio.

Exactly as Boyd warned would happen.

The Sidewinder had a 30% pK ratio over Vietnam; the best of any missile used in that conflict. In Operation Desert Storm, the (then) latest generation achieved a *100%* pK ratio.

#11 Comment By Nick Schwellenbach On September 21, 2013 @ 11:23 am

These are some true American heroes. Thanks for this article, Kelley!

#12 Comment By John V. Walsh On September 21, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

This is not what we need. We need to discuss a non-interventionist military.
Politics is primary.

#13 Comment By richard vajs On September 22, 2013 @ 8:29 am

The “sensors program” that T. Sledge mentions was the Igloo White program which was quite extensive. Its main goal was to monitor traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I worked on the program as a field engineer and it was never dull. How successful it was is unknown to me, but it foul-ups were laughable. All kinds of sensors were used – acoustic (sounds of gunfire, or trucks changing speeds), seismic, and truly weird stuff like little, plastic replicas of dog feces (the Turdsid) that emitted piezo-electric signals if stepped on. This one fizzled when it was realized that there were few dogs walking around the jungle so that anyone walking the trails knew that they were fake as a rubber snake on a street in a big city. There were also sensors that consisted of an actual TV tuner that were supposed to pick up ignition noise (back then TVs would display ignition noise of nearby vehicles – especially bad on Channel 10). That also fizzled when it was realized that old Russian trucks were diesel or had spark plug wires encased in metallic shields.

#14 Comment By Christian On September 23, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

Since World War 2, 90% of the casualties of war are unarmed civilians, one-third of them children. Our victims have done nothing to us. From Palestine to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Somalia, to wherever our next target may be, their murders are not collateral damage, they are the nature of modern warfare. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms. They hate us because every day we are funding and committing crimes against humanity. The so-called “war on terror” is a cover for our military aggression to gain control of the resources of western Asia.

This is sending the poor of this country to kill the poor of those Muslim countries. This is trading blood for oil. This is genocide. And to most of the world, we are the terrorists. In these times, remaining silent on our responsibility to the world and its future is criminal. And in light of our complicity in the supreme crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ongoing violations of the U.N. Charter in International Law, how dare any American criticize the actions of legitimate resistance to illegal occupation.

Our so-called enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, our other colonies around the world, and our inner cities here at home, are struggling against the oppressive hand of empire, demanding respect for their humanity. They are labeled insurgents or terrorists for resisting rape and pillage by the white establishment, but they are our brothers and sisters in the struggle for justice. The civilians at the other end of our weapons don’t have a choice, but American soldiers have choices. And while there may have been some doubt 5 years ago, today we know the truth. Our soldiers don’t sacrifice for duty-honor-country, they sacrifice for Kellogg Brown & Root.

They don’t fight for America, they fight for their lives and their buddies beside them, because we put them in a war zone. They’re not defending our freedoms, they’re laying the foundation for 14 permanent military bases to defend the freedoms of Exxon Mobil and British Petroleum.

They’re not establishing democracy, they’re establishing the basis for an economic occupation to continue after the military occupation has ended. Iraqi society today, thanks to American “help” is defined by house raids, death squads, check-points, detentions, curfews, blood in the streets, and constant violence. We must dare to speak out in support of the Iraqi people, who resist and endure the horrific existence we brought upon them through our bloodthirsty imperial crusade. We must dare to speak out in support of those American war-resisters, the real military heroes, who uphold their Oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, including those terrorist cells in Washington DC more commonly known as the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches.

Frederick Douglass said:

‘Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both … but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.’

Every one of us, every one of us must keep demanding, keep fighting, keep thundering, keep plowing, keep speaking, keep struggling until justice is served. NO justice, NO peace.”

#15 Comment By Barry On September 24, 2013 @ 8:18 am

EliteCommInc. says:

“Interesting article. And in some ways painful, because I am a fan ofSec Dumsfeld and wish he had pushed for a saner response to 9/11.

His primary mission was to transform the military for a 21 Century theater(s). And I do think he was the man for that task. ”

When you put somebody in charge of something big, he or she had better be capable of dealing with the sh*t that inevitably happens. And Rumsfeld proved that he wasn’t a big fan of reality.

In a non-9/11 world, his shortcomings wouldn’t have been as obvious, but he’d have still been a guy who didn’t care about what actually happened, just his pet theories.

#16 Comment By Duane On September 24, 2013 @ 9:21 am

They have a couple more years in which to succeed. The Rest of the World is fed up with Our crap …. and we can no longer afford the Theft and Corruption of the Military/Industrial/BANKER Complex. America will collapse, and the World will exact It’s vengeance.

#17 Comment By Lynn Wheeler On September 24, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

Richard Vajs, did you see post upthread with (gone 404 but lives on at wayback machine) URL that goes into some detail on “Igloo White” and “Spook Base”? Is also has drones at “Spook Base”.

#18 Comment By channelclemente On September 24, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

Great summary of the need for gadflies who prick the pricks.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 24, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

When you put somebody in charge of something big, he or she had better be capable of dealing with the sh*t that inevitably happens. And Rumsfeld proved that he wasn’t a big fan of reality.

In a non-9/11 world, his shortcomings wouldn’t have been as obvious, but he’d have still been a guy who didn’t care about what actually happened, just his pet theories.

Excuse me but your entire commentary is misplaced. He never took on the task of transforming the military. Well, he did attempt to do Iraq on the cheap. Hge error having not made the essential transformations.

While I my position on Iraq and Afgahnistan are well known, I am no aware of the internal politics that made Sec Rumsfeld’s position more difficult. To me the error was going at all, we had neither moral or evidentiary case. That said, failing to engage acountry the size of Iraq in a total war scenario clamping down so hard that bthe population had no choice but to fall in line was the better choice.

If we had a thoroughly schooled forc in culture, language etc, we might have ben able to do something different (doubtful), but that is another discusion. As for Sec Rumsfeld I think he as more than capable of leading a desperately needed miloitary overhaul in strategy —

I guess if one wants to argue that the Sec shoud have pushed for the overhaul asopposed to an invasion — agreed. But beyond that — having no idea what the inevitable ‘sh . . .’ was I have to hold any response.

Save this: our entire system seems to have an aversion for accountabilit and that is scarey.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 24, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

“Every one of us, every one of us must keep demanding, keep fighting, keep thundering, keep plowing, keep speaking, keep struggling until justice is served. NO justice, NO peace.””

Absolutely as long as I agree with the cause and tactics.

Dear Fran Macadam I’m never sure whether you or Church Lady are engaged in tag team liberal attacks, while I have come to apprciate your ethical standards, zeal and suave writing styles while abhoring your positions, I am hard pressed to understand how Vietnam was evil. Ill advised, but evil? Not hardly. Vietnam fr all pracical purposes was a hard fought win. Neither Pres.Nixon nor the US military can be blamed for the choice by N. Vietnam to violate the traety agreement and invade the South after our primary forces had left the building. And the rather brutal treatment in which the treated their fellow Vietnamese even after victory is aclear sign that something amiss had in fact happened to the soul of Ho Chi Min, a former freind and ally.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 24, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

The evil lie not in the bosom of te United States. Childish naivete’ perhaps, but not evil.

And I do fault Dr./Rev. Martin Luther King for not having insytructed spolied white kids to get back in class in appreciation of all they had at the expense of millions of their black citizens.

And now those same hypocrites have cntimued to abandon the same youths they ignored while decrying Vietnam — shameful and cowardly. Anything but to be accountable for their own —

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 24, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

As for Snowden and Manning,

I prefer my whistleblowers not devulging information randomly or whistleblowing in such a manner that they flee to Rusia.

No issues with Russia . . . ” . . .gift horse in the mouth.” and all that.

Despite our ills. This is still the United States ofAmerica and we remain morally viable.

#23 Comment By achteck On September 25, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

Mr Vlahos,
Just for information,
The OODA Loop is a useful tool for teaching but two advanced combat systems (which is what an OODA Loop is) went IOC in C1970. The science and engineering was and still is a quantum leap ahead of all existing systems.

The Fighter Mafia did a good job keeping people well informed within the radius of their voice but they were out of touch on some things. Hopefully the younger pilots will be able to gain access to these other folks and the advanced knowledge that’s out there.

Thank you.
Very respectfully,

#24 Comment By Orv Seymer On October 20, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

I would also love to be able to sit in on some of these sessions and just listen.

I have read everything that I can get my hands on about John Boyd and his acolytes.

These guys were absolute geniuses in the truest sense of the word.

#25 Comment By Missy H. Gillespie On September 15, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

You failed to mention Harry J. Hillaker, considered to be the “Father of the F-16”, he conceived the YF-16, and was instrumental in the “Fighter Mafia”!