Pierre Sprey: “Whiz Kid” Rebel With a Cause

Image via US Air Force

Fighter Mafia Part 2: Pierre Sprey, A-10 Close Air Support Aircraft Developer

Articles dedicated to Colonel John Boyd, Thomas P. Christie, Pierre M. Sprey, Chuck Myers, Colonel Everest Riccioni, Harry Hillaker, Dr. Raymond Leopold, James Burton, Colonel Mike Wyly, and Franklin “Chuck” Spinney – the Fighter Mafia and Acolyte core; an independent, free-thinking group of pentagon analysts, pilots, and engineers that demonstrably changed the culture, theory, and production of air combat assets.

As the second installment in the Fighter Mafia series, (please read the first article in series Colonel John Boyd– if you haven’t yet), we explore a true game-changer, legend, and visionary – Pierre Sprey (pronounced “Spray”).  As a result of talking with Pierre Sprey we made some changes to the first article to accurately reflect historical events and capture even more about John Boyd.

Author’s personal note:  As a relatively poor youth reared in Kansas, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world.  Many of us in the aviation world probably grew up the same and desired more out of life and truly wanted to become better people and change lives around us.  After talking with Pierre, I remain humbled that due largely to his (and others) passions, desires, and commitments, he changed history for the better and made a difference.  Few ever get that chance and we should celebrate those that selflessly took stands that made greatly impacted history!

courtesy of pierre sprey


At the age of three Pierre Sprey emigrated to the United States in 1941. Under threat of German occupation of France moving south, Pierre’s family escaped France at Nice and traveled on one of the last steamers from Casablanca to New York.  Growing up in Queens, Pierre attended Forest Hills High School.  After graduating in 1953, Pierre sought a Mechanical Engineering degree from Yale and spent summers interning with Grumman, bucking rivets on the F11F Tiger and working in the experimental machine shop building wind tunnel prototypes.

F11F-1 Tiger. image via us navy

A Numbers Guy

Originally desiring an Aeronautical Engineering degree to design aircraft (not available at Yale), Pierre understood after his third summer internship working in Stability and Control at Grumman, that the likelihood of designing his own airplane would be 20 years away at the earliest.  Pierre, a numbers guy, found a niche the fourth summer working in the Research Department with mathematicians and statisticians and decided on a new path diverging from aircraft design. Pierre graduated Yale in 1958 with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering with a Minor in French Literature.  

image via us navy

The Ultimate Numbers Guy

With a new purpose, Pierre attended Cornell for a M.S. in Operations Research and Mathematical Statistics and set upon a blazing path using numbers and data to encapsulate and solidify national defense decisions.  Grumman wanted and needed a numbers guy and Pierre became a one-man number-crunching consultant within the company during graduate school.  Since few engineers could apply statistics to practical problems, Pierre’s work blossomed thanks to peer demand throughout Grumman’s departments, thereby aiding Pierre in understanding the true complexities hidden within aircraft design.  Pierre graduated Cornell in 1961 and converted from consultant to full-time employee at Grumman.

image via us navy

Whiz Kids

One benefit for single-handedly operating a practical applications statistics shop was in 1965 Pierre became the natural selection from Grumman to attend the relatively new, prestigious Hudson Institute’s seminar, attended by major airplane manufacturers and hosted by founder Dr. Herman Kahn.  At the seminar, Pierre became acquainted with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Robert Valtz, who hired Pierre into the Pentagon for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) for Systems Analysis (known internally as the “Whiz Kids”).  The Whiz Kids had been established in 1961 by then-new Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The group consisted of smart young economists, MBAs, and mathematicians who addressed major defense budget questions posed by McNamara.  When he joined in 1966, Pierre was the Whiz Kids’ first aviation-experienced engineer. 

Robert Mcnamara. image via getty

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The Draft Presidential Memorandum Games

McNamara applied operations research and systems analysis from his days in the Air Force and at Ford Motor Company to right-size Department of Defense programs, increase Defense efficiency, and address re-allocations of the Defense budget.  Each functional group within the Whiz Kids was tasked with an annual major issue to be analyzed throughout the year for inclusion into a Draft Presidential Memorandum.  If McNamara liked the study, he would forward it to the services for their inputs and then send the Memorandum to the President with recommendations derived from those inputs.

C-130B image via ken fielding

Tactical Transport Conundrum

As the new kid on the block in the Strategic Transportation Group, Pierre’s assignment was to undertake the group’s first analysis of the intra-theater transport section. Until that time, the group focused on the more glamorous area of inter-theater transportation, essentially doing computer analysis of the optimum mix of large cargo airplanes and rapid deployment ships to meet a 60-day deployment schedule supporting a major NATO conflict simultaneously with a 90-day schedule for a smaller Asian scenario. Pierre’s assigned area was Air and Ground Transportation for moving people, ammunition and supplies within a tactical theater. Though the group looked down on these messy, ill-defined tactical problems, the area fascinated Pierre and he spent 1966 studying McNamara’s first intra-theater question: “We have 1500 C-130s on hand or ordered. Are these too many or too few, and is the DoD spending too little or too much on them.”

C-130B image via us air force

Picking Apart the Hercules

Pierre spent the year studying the in-theater daily missions for C-130s and the emergency re-supply needed for forward troops in trouble.  By working with Air Force Transportation Command, loadmasters, and unprepared field specialists, Pierre garnered an understanding of the cargo, tonnages, loading problems, and the critical airfield constraints upon effectively utilizing the C-130. Through meticulous research, Pierre discovered many inappropriate C-130 uses and found that the existing airlifters lacked sufficient short field takeoff and dirt / rough field landing capabilities. 

C-130B image via ralf manteufel

Findings and Recommendations

In answering the McNamara question Pierre recommended cutting the total C-130 inventory number by half to 750 and dramatically upgrading all 750 remaining C-130s.  He suggested totally refurbishing these aircraft with more powerful Allison engines, deeper biting propellers, better landing flaps, and completely revamped landing gear suitable for rough and muddy dirt runways.  Naturally, the Air Force fought the proposal and Lockheed eventually designed a new model with engineering implementing some of those recommendations.  Though McNamara approved the study, he was unable to politically achieve the recommended inventory cuts. Pierre’s change-agent reputation and independently critical attitude got him fired and moved to another group within the Whiz Kids.

image via royal netherlands air force

How to Become a Public Enemy

At the beginning of 1967, Pierre transferred to the NATO Group under Charles Rossotti, a practical Harvard business school grad that became Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Analysis at 29 years old.  The group had been successfully analyzing the U.S. ground and naval forces committed to NATO support but needed someone that understood tactical aviation to study NATO’S U.S. and allied air force needs.  The McNamara question for the year was to determine whether USAF tactical aircraft earmarked for NATO were too few or too many, whether we were buying the right kind of fighters, and whether we were spending too much or not enough.  Pierre spent the next year analyzing this problem that involved as many as 5,000 U.S. and allied aircraft.

image via national archives

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An Impossible Task With Limitless Variables

The NATO scenario required stopping 100 Soviet divisions from overrunning Germany and France. Pierre began the deep-dive into what that would take.  He dissected JCS-approved high value target lists and weapons effectiveness manuals, then undertook a mountain of manual calculations to determine how many airplanes would be needed to wreck the bridges, cut the highways, and destroy the  railroad nodes required by the JCS list to stop the 100 Soviet divisions.  Relying heavily on the nearly 80 printed volumes of the Joint Munitions Effectiveness Handbooks, Pierre’s year-long calculations showed that the USAF’S planned usage of tactical fighters would be ineffective due to strong Soviet capabilities for bypassing bridges and repairing road and rail cuts.  Essentially, the USAF plans allocated almost all 5,000 NATO fighters to deep interdiction strikes much like WWII strategic bombing that would be lucky to slow down the Soviet forces for even 30 days.

image via hans sloot

Rethinking the Think Tank’s Conclusions

Pierre’s study concluded that the defense budget needed to gut the planned multi-mission deep-interdiction aircraft funding and re-allocate to attack aircraft suited specifically for battlefield Close Air Support (CAS) plus air-to-air fighters dedicated to clearing the airspace above the battlefield. Pierre reasoned the Soviet forces would be more effectively stopped by applying airpower on the battlefield to greatly magnify the lethality of NATO ground forces against the now- engaged, concentrated, and visible enemy assets versus interdicting the widely dispersed, highly camouflaged, hard-to-detect Soviet forces moving through intensely defended rear areas.  The entire Systems Analysis Office supported these conclusions and McNamara agreed.  Once McNamara passed the study to the Air Force Chief of Staff, Pierre became the Air Force’s Public Enemy #1 overnight.

NATO fighters image via royal canadian air force

Shooting Holes and Challenging Findings

Using a team to tackle Pierre’s calculations, the Air Force assigned young captains to implement a computer program to challenge his numbers.  Air Force intelligence had Pierre interview a Soviet defector fighter pilot to contradict the study’s pessimistic estimate of Soviet air-to-air capabilities, but backfired by actually validating Pierre’s low Soviet sortie rate and training estimates.  Similarly, the Air Force decided to challenge the study’s tactical concept of air-to air superiority over the battlefield by bringing in the USAF’S  premier tactics expert, Major John Boyd, who had just been assigned to the Pentagon to save the Air Force’s failing F-15 design effort.

john boyd image via us air force

Boyd and Sprey Work Together

The Air Force Colonel heading the task force attacking Sprey’s report called in Boyd and briefed him on the importance of discrediting and disproving Pierre’s approach to Air Superiority over the battlefield. Accompanying Boyd to the first meeting with Pierre, the Colonel made the introductions and soon left. Once alone, Boyd and Sprey started discussing air-to-air combat history and quickly gained mutual respect. Pierre provided his study’s combat-historical context for air-to-air fighters over the battlefield enabling effective attacks by close air support planes using war examples. Boyd, who possessed a photographic memory bank of every WWII and Korean War air combat encounter, found the study’s analysis persuasive but began offering significant improvements to Sprey’s tactical assumptions.

image via us air force

Mutual Respect and Admiration

Through their meetings, Sprey immediately recognized Boyd’s brilliance in innovative Aerial Attack Tactics and became a dedicated “student of Boyd.”  Boyd showed him the primitiveness of WWII tactics and then, in subsequent meetings, introduced him to his revolutionary new Energy Maneuverability-based tactics. Boyd, a master of bureaucratic tactics and combat tactics, made sure that the friendship with Sprey remained well-hidden. As these two new colleagues interacted, they began a lifelong symbiotic relationship critiquing and improving each other’s work- fighting a guerilla war against the Pentagon bureaucracy to bring fruition to the best air-to-air and close air support airplanes ever designed.

Pierre Sprey (seated) and john boyd (standing). image via us marine corps archives

Burning the Midnight Oil

Once Boyd and Sprey joined forces under the radar, Sprey began helping Boyd with his F-15 revamping.  At that point, the Air Force’s as-planned F-15 mirrored the F-111 with variable sweep wings, excessive weight, inadequate wing area, low thrust and heavily overloaded with multi-mission equipment.  Boyd showed that the planned aircraft would essentially lose in any air-to-air combat secnario due to energy-maneuverability grossly inferior to threat aircraft.  Boyd, with Sprey’s assistance, reduced weight and milspec penalties, reconfigured the airframe concept to fixed wing with greatly improved acceleration and maneuverability and extensively removed all unnecessary equipment. Together, they reduced weight from 50,000 lbs to 33,000 lbs while proving the aircraft would easily out-maneuver and therefore outfight any aircraft in the world.  The USAF adopted the new plans but bureaucracy and lobbying quickly added back in tons of unnecessary equipment.  Frustrated, Boyd and Sprey absolved themselves from further inputs; however, their surviving improvements still created an air-to-air fighter far better than any the Air Force had ever built.

F-15A Eagle image via us air force

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The Colonel Joins the Fray

Within a month of meeting Boyd, Sprey simultaneously joined forces with another remarkable officer, Colonel Avery Kay.  An ethically moral straight shooter, Col. Kay served in the USAF Headquarters Concepts and Doctrine staff office under then Air Force Chief of Staff General John McConnell.  Highly decorated during WWII, as lead navigator, Kay led the extraordinarily dangerous Schweinfurt bombing mission deep into Germany’s industrial heartland. In post- WWII Europe, Kay taught a pioneering course in low-level bombing navigation for under-the-radar nuclear bomber missions and flew with students on night missions at tree-top level to drop agents into Eastern Europe. Highly capable, Kay rose in rank and was assigned to Air Force Headquarters.

Colonel avery kay: front left, usaf photo

The Key West Agreements

in 1965, as staff officer in concepts and doctrine, Col. Kay was tasked to support the negotiations between Air Force Chief Of Staff Gen. McConnell and Army Chief Of Staff Harold Johnson regarding each service’s responsibilities regarding helicopter and fixed wing assets—an extension of the original 1948 Key West Agreements between The Air Force and Army.  McConnell and Johnson agreed that the Army would be lead service in all helicopter development and procurement.  In return, the Air Force would take over all of the Army’s fixed wing transport aircraft as well as all fixed wing observation and armed planes, along with an Air Force promise to provide first-rate close support to the army whenever needed in the future. Col. Kay was assigned to write up this agreement and in 1966 the two chiefs duly signed it. Within six months Col. Kay realized that the Air Force had no interest in fulfilling the close support promise that he had helped write. Being an extraordinarily ethical officer, he felt personally responsible for making good on that promise and dedicated the rest of his career to doing so. He soon came up with a solution.

ah-56 cheyenne: army photos

A Tremendously Costly Rotorcaft…to Replace Tactical Jets?

Recognizing the Air Force’s disinterest in close support, the Army started developing the AH-56 Cheyenne, a complex, high-tech armed helicopter to provide the missing close support and planned to buy 1,000 rotorcraft. Recognizing this, Col. Kay explained to McConnell that each Cheyenne cost 1 ½ times more than the most expensive fighter the Air Force was buying, the F-4—and, moreover, the Army intended to get congress to fund 1,000 of them. If the Air Force did not come up with a better, less expensive way to provide that close support, Col. Kay said Congress would indeed fund the 1000 Cheyennes and the money would come out of the Air Force’s hide. If that happened, Gen. McConnell would go down in history as the Chief of Staff who lost the CAS mission. The only workable counter to the Army would be to offer congress a more lethal, more survivable plane that could loiter over the troops for longer with greater payloads- and that cost much less than the Cheyenne. Gen. McConnell was convinced, and subsequently approved the development of such a plane- then assigned Col. Kay to make it happen.

image via us army

The Mission Nobody Wanted

Col. Kay had no technical capabilities in his office and needed help. Quite reasonably, he asked both the Headquarters R&D staff and Wright Patterson’s Aeronautical Systems Division for engineers and budget. All he received was a low ranking officer disinterested in the low-priority and undesirable CAS mission.  Essentially, McConnell’s staff of 3-Star generals had no interest in sacrificing budget or personnel for a mission they didn’t believe in and figured that McConnell was on the hook and if it failed, he would be the fall guy.  Dismayed, happenstance occurred for Col. Kay. 

image via us air force

The Dreaded Two Job Routine

As Pierre’s highly confrontational Air Force Deep Strike Bombing study was circulated to the various Air Force staffs for help in discrediting the study, Col. Kay read the report with enthusiasm.  Undeterred, without authorization, and outside the chain of command, Col. Kay approached Pierre to see if Pierre would help with the technical aspects of launching the CAS airplane.  Renting a quasi-secret think tank office outside the Pentagon, Kay and Pierre began discussing how to to shape the new A-X concept.  Pierre now had two jobs, 9 to 5 working for McNamara and 6 to midnight for Col. Kay. 

image via us navy

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The Origins of the A-10

With Pierre, supported by three of Col. Kay’s officers, most fortunately each of them an A-1 pilot just returned from close support combat in Vietnam, the A-X concept formulation team began work.  Intending to make a far more lethal and survivable A-1 Skyraider, Pierre reached out to Boyd to better understand and utilize Boyd’s newly developed Energy Maneuverability design tradeoff techniques, applied to close support attack profiles rather than air-to-air dogfight maneuvers.  Pierre used the EM approach for re-attack profiles to keep ground targets within sight and minimizing rearming and reattack times. Low wing loading and good thrust-to-weight to enable high G roll-ins and pull-outs with quick maneuvering climb-outs were key tenets for the new aircraft. All of this was folded into the performance and armament requirements of the final A-X concept formulation package as well as the request for proposal specifications that went out to the companies competing for the A-x design and prototyping contracts.

a-1 skyraider: usn photo

Pierre tried multiple times to bring Boyd into the A-X design.  Whenever Pierre tried to get Boyd to look at some A-X tradeoff charts, Boyd always slapped him on the back and said “You’re doing great tiger, keep it up.”  There was simply no way to break Boyd’s laser focus on air-to-air and honing the F-16 Fighting Falcon to perfection.

Northrop YA-9 image via US air force

Prototyping Becomes Fashionable

Taking advantage of a new interest in prototyping in Pentagon R&D circles, Pierre pushed hard to make the A-10 prototype program into an unprecedented live-firing, head-to-head shootoff between two competing combat-ready prototypes- something never before attempted in Air Force procurement history. With the fortuitous help of the Deputy Secretary of the Air Force, the entrenched opposition within the USAF procurement bureaucracy was overcome to enable Northrop and Fairchild/Republic to be placed under contract for the shooting flyoff between the A-9 and the A-10.

ya-10 thunderbolt prototype: usaf photo

How to Source Two Highly-Capable Jets at the Same Time

As development of the A-10 continued, the fate of both the future A-10 and the new Lightweight Fighter/F-16 converged.  At the time, several lucky key events facilitated approval of prototypes for both airframes.  The new Assistant Secretary of Defense, David Packard, an electrical engineer who helped start Hewlett-Packard in his garage, thought that lots of simple prototyping would reduce the widely-criticized failures of the Pentagon’s big weapons programs (Packard had no idea of competitive shootoff prototyping).  Packard set aside a $200 million dollar pot that the military branches would compete to use for new prototypes.  Each branch would forward their designs to a selection committee.

image via us air force

Choosing the F-16

The Air Force, serious about the desire to obtain as much of the prototyping pot as possible, formed a Prototype Board to select their designs to promote. Fortunately, an officer that had worked side by side with Pierre on the C-130 analysis, Col. Lyle Cameron, just happened to be the board Chairman.  With the lightweight fighter/F-16 concept formulation essentially complete, the Air Force Board picked the LWF/F-16 as their candidate–and the Air Force went on to garner much of the Packard pot largely based on that.

image via us air force

The Hero

Once the A-X prototyping had helped kill the Cheyenne, the Air Force did not intend to put the A-10 into production. In 1973, a new Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, very intentionally made it happen. 

James Schlesinger: wiki commons

A Combat Vet to Help Improve the Services

Schlesinger, knowing that he soon would be appointed, called in his longstanding confidante and military adviser, retired Col. Richard Hallock, a highly decorated WWII Airborne officer that survived and won some 40 platoon-size firefights- probably more than any other infantry platoon leader.  Fortunately, during Pierre’s first year with the Whiz Kids, Hallock had mentored Pierre in the basics and little-known subtleties of ground warfare and as a result they became close friends and colleagues.  Desiring to leave a legacy of having strengthened all the military services, Schlesinger tasked Hallock with recommending what organizational and hardware changes would improve  each service- a weighty charge indeed.

image via us air force

Making the Deal of the Century

Nearly working around the clock for Schlesinger, Hallock needed help and consulted Pierre for the air portion.  Pierre developed justification papers for putting both the F-16 and A-10 into production- neither of which the Air Force had any interest in funding.  The F-16 was too small and too cheap and threatened the Air Force’s favorite, the F-15. The A-10 was intended for the despised close air support mission.  Knowing this, Hallock proposed that Schlesinger would offer the Air Force Chief of Staff a deal he couldn’t refuse: A five-wing increase in the USAF’s force structure and a 1,000+ increase in aircraft inventory in return for accepting the unwanted F-16 and A-10.  Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. George Brown couldn’t resist and accepted. To make sure the Air Force couldn’t back out, Schlesinger obtained NATO’s commitment to buy F-16s before the end of 1973.

image via us air force

Post Script

Pierre continued to consult for the Whiz Kids from 1971 to 1986.  Primarily assisting on the F-16 and A-10 projects, Pierre also aided in tank acquisition projects, given his interest in land warfare.  Faced with the impossibility of developing superior and needed replacements for the A-10 and F-16 due to deteriorating Pentagon politics, Pierre exited the defense consulting business in 1986 to pursue his longstanding passion for recording music.  Starting a jazz/blues/gospel recording studio and label, Pierre soon expanded into designing and manufacturing upgrade products for the niche home audio aficionado.  Pierre continues to work with his old military reform colleagues and, through congressional lobbying and work with the media, is very actively pressing to keep the most effective close support plane ever designed in the inventory- at least until a far better one is designed and tested.

image via us air force

Pierre Sprey’s music studio and label: https://www.mapleshadestore.com/