01 November 2020

How To Design A War Technology: 

What Wins? 

What Is Reasonably Cheap Or Too Expensive?

 Purdue University, College of Liberal Arts, CLA Research Office, June 25, 2020


[Reposted with permission]

CLA’s FORCES initiative brings together scholars and students with policymakers, military commanders, and decision-makers to engage in essential strategic issues of the day, such as how politics shape war-making and defense technologies. Here, FORCES Founder Sorin Adam Matei, CLA associate dean of research, and FORCES Operations Officer Robert Kirchubel interview Pierre Sprey, co-creator of the A-10 and F-16 aircraft.

In April 2020, we invited as a virtual guest to the FORCES speaker series Pierre Sprey, co-creator of the A-10 and F-16 planes. A legend in some military and political circles, a strong-minded debater, and a dissenter during the 1980s, Sprey was a founding member of the Military Reform Movement. He defined the goal of the movement simply: “We thought that the country deserved a good defense, wasn’t getting one, and was paying too much for the one it had.”


The reform movement tried to reallocate defense spending towards winning wars and reducing costs in the face of counterproductive bureaucratic and political incentives. Sprey worked closely with Col. John Boyd, another legendary figure of mid-to-late 20th century U.S. military thinking. Boyd enlisted in the Army Air Force  at the end of World War II, returned to serve as an F-86 fighter pilot in Korea, became the Air Force’s leading air-to-air tactician, and then commanded a major air base during the Vietnam War. Boyd is best known in aviation circles for innovating tactics that changed the way every air force in the world fights and for his energy maneuverability theory which revolutionized fighter plane design. After retiring, he grew into a strategic thinker of Clausewitzian caliber. 

[CS Note: readers interested in learning more about Boyd’s strategic theories, a compendium of his works and writings about his work can be found at An Introduction to the Strategic Theories of John Boyd.]

Pierre Sprey, engineer, weapons designer, defense expert" In this interview, Sprey offers a unique perspective into his own work as a Pentagon official, and later as a consultant, who helped shape an entire generation of war-winning technologies during the 1960s and 1970s. He offers his opinions, at times strong and controversial, which are, of course, his own, on how politics and technologies of war mix (or not).  His interview, edited here for brevity and clarity, was also integrated into the Technology, War, and Strategy seminar, which Matei and Kirchubel taught in Purdue’s Honors College. 


Question. When and how did you first see the need for a Military Reform Movement?

In brief: Combat is the struggle between intelligent, thinking, responding, and reacting opponents.

Answer. The Reform Movement grew out of the Fighter Mafia–John Boyd and similar-minded people. A bunch of non-Air Force people, civilians, Army, Navy and Marine types joined us and it grew during the ’70s. We thought that the country deserved a good defense, wasn’t getting one, and was paying too much for the one it had. Of course, professionally we were deeply interested in improving the military. When we decided to work with some people on the Hill and form a Congressional Military Reform Caucus it became more formalized. We initially met at the Heritage Foundation; today they would disown us. [Laughs]

A very important guy in the process was Bill Lind, Sen. Gary Hart’s staff guy on military affairs. By the early ’80s we had about a hundred members from both houses of Congress, I think mainly because we were getting a lot of media attention. The major coalescing factor was that we were all admirers and participants in John Boyd’s focus on the need to pay attention to the people side [of the military], and the need for more intelligent thought about strategy and tactics. The inspiration of John Boyd’s ideas was at the heart of the reform movement.

In my assessment, and that of others more qualified than me, Boyd is the American Clausewitz. And not just the US, he’s one of the three or four great military thinkers of the world. Interestingly, Boyd was no fan of Clausewitz. His copy of Clausewitz was a treasure to behold because it was ripped apart and profusely commented on in the margins. Wherever Boyd thought Clausewitz had said something stupid or not useful, there’d be scribbled annotations. But Sun Tzu, he simply absorbed Sun Tzu. Boyd went beyond him into the modern era but never in any way contradicted his teachings. Boyd was very, very enamored with Sun Tzu’s notion that the best way to win is without battles.

I would synthesize Boyd’s contributions in the following way: He saw combat as a competition or struggle between intelligent, thinking, responding, and reacting opponents. So, everything in his conception is two-sided. There are no simple geometric solutions to how to array troops or anything like that because you always have to be thinking about move and countermove by the enemy.

By the way, there’s a very good history of the military reform movement written by Winslow Wheeler, a book titled “Military Reform.”

Q. You are known for advocating and supporting the A-10, the “ugly duckling” that has proved to be an asset for the US military. You argued against the idea the US military can rely on one type of plane to do it all – bomb, strafe, dogfight, land on carriers – an oversized Swiss Army Knife, good for all things but not very good for any one thing in particular. Did the A-10 vindicate you?

In brief: Truth tellers and blunt speakers are not welcome in the Pentagon.

A. Boyd and I started working together in 1967 to save the completely screwed up F-15 design the Air Force had come up with at the time. I largely played the role of student to John, helping on the engineering side and stuff. By 1968-69, we were so disgusted with what the bureaucracy did to ruin our upgraded F-15 design that we formed an underground guerilla campaign to build a real air-to-air fighter, the F-16. And almost in parallel with that I started working separately on the A-10.

The Air Force had a whole slew of acquisition people who were very big on multi-mission, super expensive airplanes. They’d already tried and failed with the F-111, which turned out such a disaster, the first of their really big multi-mission disasters. They then made a horrible mess of starting their next new fighter, the F-15. Because their bureaucracy proved so incompetent, the Air Force had to call in John. But truth tellers and blunt speakers like John are not welcome in the Pentagon.

Our opposition to multi-mission was not based on some theoretical consideration that single-purpose airplanes are always better than multi-purpose. I’m completely open to the idea, then and today, that if you could design an effective multi-purpose platform inexpensively enough, that’s wonderful. Except, it turned out that a force based on the multi-mission designs then available was vastly more expensive and less combat effective, (that is, effective in a historically-based sense) than one based on single-purpose designs: air-to-air, close support and deep strike.

The A-10 story is muddied by the fact that we designed it for a mission that the Air Force hated. An airplane to directly support the Army was traditionally anathema to most of the Air Force bomber generals. The A-10 only came about because of a peculiar circumstance: the Air Force wanted to kill the Army’s Cheyenne helicopter for fear of losing budget millions to the Army.

We used the excuse of killing the Cheyenne, a disaster which richly deserved killing, to put across a close support airplane that the Air Force never wanted and still doesn’t want—but one that, over the last four wars, has proved more effective in killing tactical targets than any other jet.

As a footnote to working with Boyd, one of Boyd’s unknown and brilliant strengths was that he was a brilliant bureaucratic tactician. He instinctively understood the bureaucracy and how it reacted, he viewed them and overcame just as he would a military enemy.

Q. What is the greatest weakness of the American way of using technology in war?

In brief: The really devastating, people-impacting aspect of how we use technology in war is that almost every new technology we’re developing is killing individual initiative at lower levels and putting more and more top-down control into higher level headquarters.

A. Aside from the fact that the technology we’re getting is becoming more and more grossly inadequate and badly designed and executed, the really devastating, people-impacting aspect of how we use military technology is that almost every new technology we’re developing is killing individual initiative at lower levels and putting ever more top-down control into higher headquarters. It was considered one of the great sins in the German blitzkrieg formations to tell a subordinate how to do something. You gave him the responsibility to accomplish the mission, and he determined the method. Today, we develop and use our technology for the opposite purpose.

One extreme example is when you have the president sitting at his desk and watching a drone strike on a big video screen. That is an utter disaster for the whole chain of command. There is no reason the president needs to watch drone strikes. But what happens when he does, when you hook up the huge communications network necessary? Think about what it takes to transmit that stuff up through one-star, two-star, four-star headquarters and then to the president; that’s a huge network and a huge investment in communications. That drone strike should simply be settled between the drone operator and the unit being supported. It’s nobody else’s business. But when more and more high-ranking people watch it, those poor guys at the tip of the spear are under deadly pressure. They can’t take a single risky or innovative action. If they don’t do it by the book, some four-star general is going to come down on them like a ton of bricks, court-martial them, or whatever.

Q. At times in American military history, we have adhered to the “better is the enemy of good enough” theory of our weaponry (think Sherman tank vs Panther). Yet at other times, in the quality vs quantity debate, we side 200% with the former (today’s aircraft and submarines). Please comment on this debate.

In brief: As soon as you define effectiveness in a way that includes both the effect of the individual weapon and the effect of the numbers of those weapons that you’re able to deliver in the face of the enemy, then the whole debate solves itself.

A. I’ve been fighting that canard all my life. I despise couching it as quality versus quantity, because that’s basically a sales tool for advocates who want to inflate the budget. When you couch the debate as “Well, we could build a small number of really good weapons that really save the lives of our people, or you buy a whole bunch of cheap weapons and then you’re sending our people to die,” that argument is always launched in favor of raising the budget. It’s a salesman’s tool.

Instead, the useful way to look at it is to forget about quality versus quantity and to sit down and get serious about what constitutes effectiveness. When you define effectiveness in a way that includes both the effect of the individual weapon and the effect of the numbers of those weapons you are able to deliver in the face of the enemy, then the whole debate solves itself. But of course, the bureaucrats who sit down and write the requirements for the new glitzy weapon never include the issue of how many of them show up in combat and how many of those are still working when the rifleman or the pilot or the artilleryman needs to pull the trigger.

If you couched effectiveness correctly, there would be no quality versus quantity debate at all. You would simply build the most effective weapon that delivers the force that’s most likely to make you win. But as soon as you leave out the idea of the force numbers deployed in battle, then you get into these total abortions of small buys of super expensive weapons that don’t work, of which the prime example is the F-35, which is like the F-111 on steroids. Right now, the F-35 can’t fly more often than once every three days. So, there’s your quality-versus-quantity debate, right? Nobody looked at how many F-35s we could buy within a fixed budget or how many of the ones bought would show up for combat. And if we had, we’d have come up with a much better, much bigger Air Force.

Q. If we should prepare for war with a near-peer power, what should the military technology developers and decision makers focus on?

In brief: We should prepare for war against any competent enemy and see how much defense we can get within a reasonable budget.

A. The U.S. should certainly prepare for war against a competent enemy. We should prepare for war against any competent enemy and see how much defense we can get within a reasonable budget. But at the same time, we should make sure that whatever it was we put together works at the other end of the scale. You must design a force against uncertainty. And while there’s nothing imminent on the horizon that looks like a competent and powerful enemy, it might not take long for another nation to become a competent and powerful enemy. And we should be prepared to deal with it, not on a high tech threat-concocted basis but based on what we know is happening in real world weapons production and which weapons work and which of those we should be afraid of.

It’s the same thing we did with the A-10. People keep on saying we designed the A-10 to kill tanks in the Fulda Gap. That’s hogwash. We designed it to kill everything from guys in sandals in the jungle to massed tanks in the Fulda Gap. And we were very sure and very careful to make sure that what we did to kill tanks didn’t ruin the airplane as a weapon against insurgents with rifles. And we should do the same thing at the national level. I mean, it’s the only sensible thing to do, given that we never get the threat right. And, I might add, exactly that is true of the threat that the nation is facing right now, the coronavirus, which we have horribly misestimated.

Q. Do you think the Covid-19 virus disruption, and the associated economic downturn, will have a significant impact on the technologies or systems that we have been discussing? If so, what might that be?

In brief: We have a hopelessly incompetent bureaucracy in the United States for dealing with epidemics.

A. Obviously, as we now see, the U.S. was totally unprepared, had no such plan. We have a hopelessly incompetent public health bureaucracy in the States for dealing with epidemics. And I say that by comparison with countries that have competent ones. It’s not that it’s impossible; it is definitely hard to get a competent bureaucracy. Taiwan has done a brilliant job and has essentially no deaths because they had a plan in place, more than a plan (late March 2020). They had a plan and a structure and a way of activating testing and so on that worked perfectly. And beyond a shadow of a doubt we should have something as good as what Taiwan has – I mean, a version adapted to our circumstances.

Of course, every sensible military must be prepared if they’re going to going to face a natural or planted bio threat, either way. Of course, you must be prepared for epidemics. Our offensive biological warfare capabilities are in the hands of one of the most thoroughly incompetent bureaucracies you ever saw—and should have been shut down ages ago. I’ve been tracking them since probably 1970, and the same goes for our chemical warfare. But biological warfare in the sense of protecting against epidemics is obviously necessary—how could you imagine not doing it?

Q. If you could do one thing to change American political and military establishments’ strategic choices, what would that be?

In brief: The single thing that leads us to the greatest strategic mistakes is the idea of agreed intelligence and agreed assessment of threats.

A. That question relates directly to what we were just talking about. The single thing that leads us to the greatest mistakes is the idea of agreed intelligence and agreed assessment of threats, almost always inflated. We have done appallingly badly at assessing every threat the United States has faced from the Berlin Wall on. We mis-assessed the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Empire, the domino threat of Ho Chi Minh. You name it, without fail we’ve gotten all that wrong. And yet, we based the nation’s strategy on it—and then we wonder why we failed.

Of course, the reason we got the threats so wrong is that the threats are political weapons for increasing the budget, and agreed intelligence is immediately captured by the powerful political interests of the military industrial complex who need inflated threats to grow the budget.

And so we’re constantly looking at false threats on which to base a national strategy. The problems all start with the “observe, orient” beginning of the OODA loop: you know, “observe, orient, decide, and act,” and then go back and around the loop. I mean, that’s super easy to understand. The observing and orienting at the national level must start with intelligence and threats. As soon as you put the ability to shape and falsify the threat in the hands of a single bureaucracy, you’re doomed. You’ll never get the threat right because the political pressures will overwhelm and distort it.

I am very much in favor of disagreed intelligence, where you have three or four intelligence agencies, each grinding their own ax and each giving you a different assessment. Every one of our last three or four wars has been based on false intelligence and total mis-assessment of the enemy, all of it agreed intelligence that came out of the national intelligence CIA/DIA/NSA behemoths. If we would allow and encourage all of them to disagree, maybe we would get a little closer to the truth. We would at least have a very good feel for the uncertainties in the threat assessment.

Q. The students in our course come from a variety of backgrounds, and are majoring in a variety of disciplines, including accounting, economics, engineering, and political science. Presumably, each has an interest in technology, war, and strategy, and the issues that we discuss. What would you say to these students about their decision to sign up for, and attend this course? Why does it matter? And how can it help them better understand the world in which they will live in 10-20-30 years?

In brief: A course like this is for people who genuinely care about their country, and in one way or another, want it to improve.

A. There are several factors that make the course useful and worthwhile, probably more today than ever before. One is the fact that we have a voluntary military, and so the military and military knowledge is much more isolated today than it ever was when we had draft. Back then the general population, being widely exposed to draftees, kind of understood the Army, Navy, Air Force and their bureaucracies and the bumbling that goes on. We’re insulated from that today unless we know people who have joined the much smaller volunteer military. We have almost no window into that defense world, other than the press, which totally misreports it. Another reason is defense is an enormous piece of our economy. A lot of how our country is ruled has to do with the military budget. That huge defense budget carries all kinds of votes in Congress and exerts enormous pressures on the president. So, if you want to be a decent citizen, if you want to know about your government, how to make choices and who to vote for and so on, you have to know the fundamentals of what goes on inside that $750 billion budget and the huge organizations behind it.

A course like this is for people who genuinely care about their country, and in one way or another, want it to improve. They need to have some feel for the power and failings of the defense sector. They’re getting both bad media information and not getting any personal exposure to the military juggernaut. Your course addresses this gap.