Who Ruined the F-16? The Fighter Mafia’s Battle against the United States Air Force

Who Ruined the F-16? The Fighter Mafia’s Battle against the United States Air Force

By Dr Michael W. Hankins

Editorial note: This article is adapted from an excerpt from Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia, by Michael W. Hankins. Copyright (c) 2021 by Michael Wayne Hankins and Smithsonian Institution. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

On January 20, 1974, test pilot Phil Oestricher began a high-speed taxi test of the General Dynamics YF-16 prototype. When the plane went into an oscillating roll that slammed the left-wing into the ground, he decided it was safer to just take off for what became the aircraft’s first flight. The YF-16 was a passion project for many people across the aerospace defense community, especially a group known as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ led by US Air Force (USAF) Colonel John Boyd. The group also included General Dynamics engineer Harry Hillaker, analyst Pierre Sprey, fighter pilot Everest Riccioni, analyst Thomas Christie, among many others. The YF-16 was the realization of their dream of a lightweight, ultra-specialized dogfighter – what Oestricher called ‘a pure air-to-air fighter airplane […] the Camelot of aeronautical engineering.’[1]

Yet, when USAF began the process of turning the YF-16 into the production model F-16A Fighting Falcon, the Fighter Mafia became bitterly opposed to the process. Their extreme frustration with the changes to the airplane set the stage for later debates as the group expanded and morphed into the Defense Reform Movement.

YF-16_and_YF-17_in_flight
An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. (Source: Wikimedia)

After winning a flyoff competition in January 1975 against Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra, the F-16 design went to the Configuration Control Committee, headed by former fighter pilot General Alton Slay, to produce an operational version of the plane. The Fighter Mafia nicknamed this group the ‘Add-On Committee,’ assuming Slay’s role was to exact the Air Force’s revenge by making sure the F-16 did not threaten the F-15 Eagle program. That meant turning the Fighting Falcon into a multi-role craft emphasizing ground attack.[2]

Christie, and his subordinate Robert J. Croteau, tried to stop this process before it started with a memo to Leonard Sullivan, Jr., the Director of Defense Program Analysis and Evaluation. They warned that moving away from the focus on air superiority would ‘subvert the purpose of the entire LWF/ACF [Lightweight fighter/Air Combat Fighter] program.’ The radar was the largest point of contention. They argued that a small radar such as the APQ-153 used in the F-5 was plenty. They wanted a configuration ‘based on primary commitment of the ACF to intense high frequency dogfights.’[3]

Instead, the production version of the F-16 put on almost 1,000 pounds. The landing gear was strengthened, the fuselage, wings, and tail area grew, and a tailhook was added. Chaff and flare systems and improved avionics also appeared. The production model added more pylons for ground-attack ordnance, with the existing pylons strengthened for heavier weapons. The loading capacity almost doubled, from 7,700 pounds to 15,200. Although the acceleration and agility of the operational F-16 was slightly less than the prototype YF-16, the production model did have increased range, thrust, and load factor, able to pull 9 Gs.[4]

The Air Force added a ground-looking, all-weather, night-capable, medium-range radar to the F-16, the Westinghouse AN/APG-66. The company maintained that this system was ‘The Fighter Pilot’s Radar,’ that would ‘allow the pilot to keep his head up and his hands on the throttle and stick throughout a dogfight engagement.’ With the flick of a switch, the radar provided ground mapping, improved with a Doppler beam, for both navigation and weapons delivery.[5] The avionics systems incorporated Boyd’s ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ into the cockpit via an ‘Energy-Maneuverability Display’ that gave pilots visual cues to indicate their current available energy, how to maximize their turn rates, the level of G-forces available, altitude and airspeed limits, and how to gain maneuvering energy quickly.[6]

Picture3
The YF-16 displayed alongside the ground attack armament it can carry, Edwards AFB, California, 12 February 1975 (Source: US Air Force)

Slay thought that the F-16 could complement the F-15 best if it was a multi-role aircraft. As he told the Senate in 1976:

The F-16 has a capability that the F-15 does not have, deliberately so. We did not choose to burden the F-15 radar with a significant air-to-ground capability. We have engineered the F-16 radar to have very good ground mapping [and] to do an extremely good job of air-to-ground missions.[7]

Slay appreciated the F-16’s maneuverability, noting ‘I almost had a heart attack watching the F-16 do a split ‘S’ from 2,700 feet. It was fantastic as far as maneuverability is concerned.’ He argued this made it useful in roles beyond dogfighting:

[t]he things that made [the F-16] good in an air-to-air role […] were extremely good in [an] air-to-ground context […] We got more than we paid for in having a multipurpose capable airplane.[8]

Boyd was unhappy with these changes and wrote to Slay several times in the opening months of 1975, arguing that ‘F-16 maneuvering performance has diminished significantly because of engineering necessity and conscious decisions that resulted in a substantial weight increase.’ Boyd said that the wing area, which had already been increased from 280 to 300 square feet, must be increased further to 320 to preserve the plane’s agility. This plan was rejected due to increased cost and a perception of increased risk with a larger wing.[9]

Boyd remained cordial in his correspondence with Slay, but privately, he and the rest of the Fighter Mafia seethed. Major Ray Leopold, Boyd’s assistant and mentee, described the group as worried that the F-16 would be ‘a disastrous compromise’ and ‘fall prey to the same vagrancies of the bureaucracy’ that the F-15 had. Leopold recalled Boyd complaining about the addition of armor plating, arguing that ‘it was mor[e] important to be maneuverable and less likely to get hit in the first place.’ He railed against the increase in bombing capacity, claiming that ‘the original concept of designing for energy maneuverability was compromised.’ Sprey was frustrated as well, claiming that the Air Force ‘degraded’ the F-16 more than they had the F-15 by increasing its size and adding equipment, most of all the radar.[10]

Hillaker, however, was not against some of the changes. Although he said that Boyd and Sprey’s frustration was reasonable, he recognized that the mafia’s original design was perhaps too limited: ‘If we had stayed with the original lightweight fighter concept,’ he explained, ‘that is, a simple day fighter, we would have produced only 300 F-16s.’[11]

On February 4, 1975, Croteau and Christie wrote to Sullivan, arguing that the changes to the F-16 were ‘unacceptable.’ They believed that the aircraft should have ‘a minimum of sophistication,’ that the additional avionics and radar capabilities were too complex and expensive, and that the added weight reduced performance in air combat. They charged: ‘Extensive air-to-ground capability of [the] proposed configuration compromises air-to-air capability.’ Croteau’s memo did present a potential design that offered the compromise of accepting some avionics, a radar, and limited ground-attack capability, but not including all the Air Force’s changes.[12] This model was not adopted.

By February 21, test pilot Chuck Myers sent a memo to Defense Secretary James Schlesinger’s special assistant, Martin Hoffman, arguing that the changes made to the plane made it ‘a far cry from the austere FIGHTER’ that the Fighter Mafia had envisioned, and that USAF needed to ‘restore the character of the airplane.’[13] He gave instructions for fixing the plane, titled ‘F-16 (LWF/ACF) PROGRAM RESTORATION.’ It excoriated the inclusion of ground attack and radar capability, then charged: ‘The expansion of mission spectrum is accomplished with an associated increases [sic] in weight, complexity, support burden and a loss of air combat maneuvering capability, the one mission for which the original design had been optimized.’ The paper concluded: ‘This mutilation of the character of the LWF through the ACF missionization process is a management travesty which cannot go unchallenged.’[14]

Members of the Fighter Mafia tended to assume that the changes made to the F-16 were retaliation for their challenges to the Air Staff. However, the Air Force had understandable reasons for adding additional capabilities to the F-16. The Air Staff argued that if the F-16 had no ground attack capability, then it could not truly replace the F-4 Phantom, which USAF wanted to phase out while preserving mission capabilities. If the F-16 conformed to the Fighter Mafia’s vision, then 30 percent of the Air Force inventory would be incapable of attacking ground targets. The Air Staff found that unacceptable. Although the F-16 could achieve air superiority, the aircraft would be useless once that superiority had been achieved in a conflict. By adding ground-attack functions, the Air Staff argued, the F-16 could be used in a ‘swing role’ to attack ground targets after air superiority had been won.[15]

An austere F-16 likely would have faced challenges without substantial radar capability. The inability to operate at night or in low-visibility weather conditions would render the aircraft problematic at best. Given that US planners expected a potential Soviet mass attack to occur in Europe, known for its often-cloudy weather conditions, deploying large numbers of such a clear sky, day-only fighter in that scenario would leave US forces particularly vulnerable. No amount of maneuverability could overcome the inability to see through clouds or in the dark against other aircraft that could. It is possible that some Air Force officials could have sought some sort of retaliation against the Fighter Mafia’s pet project, but the case for multi-role requirements had logical arguments behind it and came from a wide group.

Picture1
This cartoon from a 1977 General Dynamics briefing depicts the ‘myth’ that the F-16 production model had inferior performance to the original YF-16 prototype (Source: Lockheed Martin photo via Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum).

The F-16 modifications were a breaking point for Boyd and the Fighter Mafia. During the late 1970s, Boyd frequently gathered with his acolytes, complaining that the Air Force’s ‘goldplating’ was destroying the ‘pure’ fighter he had designed. After this point, Boyd focused entirely on his intellectual activities. He and others set their sights on different issues, sometimes regarding military hardware, but also doctrine, education, and procurement. These efforts expanded his movement. The Fighter Mafia soon took their arguments beyond the halls of the Pentagon and directly to the public.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

[1] Quoted in Wade Scrogham, Combat Relevant Task: The Test & Evaluation of the Lightweight Fighter Prototypes (Edwards AFB: Air Force Test Center History Office, 2014), p. 67.

[2] James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1982), p 105; Grant Hammond, Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, Smithsonian Books, 2001), p. 97.

[3] US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Quantico, VA, Robert Coram Personal Papers, Box 3 Folder 13, Robert J. Croteau, Memorandum for Mr. Sullivan, through Mr. Christie, ‘F-16 Air Combat Fighter DSARC II,’ January 27, 1975.

[4] Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Briefing Packets, AG-033100-03. General Dynamics, ‘F-16 Program Summary,’ August 15, 1977, ASD 771456.

[5] NASM Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Avionics Systems, AG-033100-02, Westinghouse Pamphlet, ‘AN/APG-68, The New Standard for Fighter Radar,’ no date; NASM Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Avionics Systems, AG-033100-02, Westinghouse Public Relations Release, ‘Westinghouse Starts Full-Scale Development of the F-16 Radar,’ no date.

[6] NASM Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Briefing Packets, AG-033100-02, General Dynamics, ‘F-16 Energy Management Displays,’ pamphlet, no date.

[7] Hearings before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, S.2965, Part 6: Research and Development, February 25-26, March 2, 4, 9, 1976, 3739-3740.

[8] Ibid, Part 9: Tactical Airpower, March 8-12, 1976, 4896.

[9] US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, John Boyd Personal Papers, Box 13 Folder 1, John Boyd, Memorandum for General Slay, ‘F-16 Wing Area Selection,’ March 31, 1975; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Boyd Papers, Box 13 Folder 1, John Boyd, Memorandum for Maj Gen Slay, ‘F-16 Wing Area,’ March 4, 1975; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Boyd Papers, Box 13 Folder 1, John Boyd, Memo to Major General Slay, ‘ACF Wing Area,’ January 23, 1975.

[10] US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Coram Papers, Box 6 Folder 7, Email, Thomas Christie to Robert Coram, February 5, 2001; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Coram Papers, Box 6 Folder 7, Email, Ray Leopold to Robert Coram, January 31, 2001; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Coram Papers, Box 5 Folder 1, Sprey Interview notes, August 2000.

[11] ‘Interview Part II: Harry Hillaker: Father of the F-16,’ Code One (July 1991), p. 9.

[12] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Martin R. Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (5),’ Memo, Robert J. Croteau, to Mr. Sullivan, through Mr. Christie, ‘F-16 DSARC II Position Recommendation,’ February 4, 1975, p. 1, 3.

[13] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (4),’ Chuck Myers, Memo to Hoffman, 21 February 1975.

[14] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (4),’ ‘F-16 (LWF/ACF) PROGRAM RESTORATION,’ Myers Memo to Hoffman, 21 February 1975, pp. 2-3.

[15] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (5),’ ‘Air Combat Fighter DSARC-II, General Counsel,’ 11 March 1975, ‘Air Force Response to the OSD List of Questions on ACF (F-16).’