The Fighter Mafia

Of Oodle-oops and Error

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I recently found in The American Conservative a piece called Forty Years of the Fighter Mafia, this mafia being a subset of the “Military Reformers,” who have insisted for many years that weaponry used by the Pentagon “doesn´t work” because it is too complex. They additionally were the people who brought you the imaginary $600 toilet seat, $17 bolt (if memory serves) and the $5000 coffee pot (or some such amount). I had the dismal duty of covering them in the Eighties in Washington. It was an eye-opening display of how easy it is to manipulate a gullible press.

Their song was, and is, that America needed simple, robust, reliable weaponry such as the Soviet Union was said to have, instead of the over-technologized equipment that the US favored. The M1 tank “wouldn´t work,” they said, because sand would destroy its turbine engine, because it would be helpless if its electronics failed, and because the driver´s compartment was so small that only a midget could fit in it.  (So help me, they said this.) The F15 fighter was too big, too heavy, too lacking in maneuverability for air-to-air combat, and its use of radar and BVR missiles—Beyond Visual Range—was flatly unworkable. (I hear eyes glazing over, but military guys will be interested.) In particular, the Aim-7 Sparrow radar-guided missile “wouldn´t work.”

The press ate this up. The country was sick of that era´s pointless losing war (that would be Viet Nam) and was happy to attack the military. Some of the Reformers were brilliant—Tom Amlie, Pierre Sprey, Bill Lind—and the former two had genuine engineering credentials. All three were glib, personable, and knew they were talking to reporters who had never worn boots and couldn´t name the three parts of a transistor. They gave these gullibles a sense of being in the know, on the inside. And they reduced everything to simplisms that reporters could understand.

That few reporters knew which end of that sort of big long gun-thingy the bullet came out of made them easy marks for Reformers. I knew something about tanks, having gone through armor school in the Marine Corps and served in an AMTRAC battalion in Viet Nam.

I could talk shop with guys in armor. But how do you explain to a J-school grad why thermal imagers are superior to microchannel photomultipliers?

The Reformers were, except for Lind, con men. Not to mention spectacularly wrong, as the Gulf War was to prove. More of this shortly.

Covering them was fascinating if depressing. They said that Soviet armor was “simple and robust.” I went to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and talked to the enlisted men who worked with captured Soviet tanks. Yes, they said, the Russian tanks were simple, but robust? They broke down constantly, and were exhausting to drive because of stiff manual transmissions. The Reformers were against automatic transmissions as too—what? Elaborate, perhaps, and unreliable. (How often does the automatic transmission in your car break down? Several times a day, right?)

They regularly (and, I think, deliberately) confused complex with unreliable. The idea is intuitively plausible that comlicated things break, and it is likely to be true of mechanical systems, but frequently wrong of electronics. The CPU in your computer contains hundreds of millions of transistors, yet will probably never fail. Your Toyota Camry is vastly more complex than a 1950 Chevy, but will run practically forever with little maintenance.

The Fighter Mafia was heavily influenced by John Boyd, a fighter pilot from the Korean War. He was very good at dogfighting, which was important in the wars he knew, and apparently decided that aerobatic combat was what the Air Force was for.

With a sort of backward-looking romanticism characteristic of the Reformers, he wanted a fast, agile, light fighter not burdened with bombs, radar, or missiles of long range. The gun was more important.

Long-range missiles were in their infancy and did not work terribly well. Ignoring the common experience that what works sort of today will work a lot better tomorrow and like gangbusters by next Thursday, Boyd, and the Fighter Mafia, wanted a philosophical Sopwith-Camel. It didn´t bother them that nobody else did. Israel, with the best tactical-fighter force of the age, was and is big on electronics. The Israelis had to win their wars, not talk about them.

So how has all of this played out? As everybody but the Reformers thougt it would. From Air Force magazine:

“What really took the ginger out of the Reform movement was the Gulf War. In that war, high technology undeniably worked. Its star performers included the much-maligned F-15 and all of the other systems that had been attacked by the Reformers.Of the 40 USAF aerial victories, 33 were by F-15s. As for weapons used, 23 of the victories were by AIM-7Ms (the radar-guided Sparrow, that couldn´t possibly work: Fred), five were by AIM-9Ms, and only two were with guns.”

The F-15 put together a victory tally of 104 to zero in various conflicts. In Gulf Storm, the M1 produced a phenomenally lopsided victory against Russia´s simple, robust, reliable, etc. T-72 and its brethren.

The Reformers were simply wrong.

The Pentagon´s record of development of weapons is far from perfect. Some really didn´t work (in the days of the Reformers, DIVAD and the early M16 rifle are examples) and some were simply unnecessary except to keep engineers employed and money flowing to contractors (the B1 and B2). But the blanket rejection of anything more advanced than the weapons of the Korean War was absurd.

Still, covering the Reformers was not entirely without its charms. There was the Oodle-oop. One night I went to a conclave of Reformers and heard over and over a word I couldn’t resolve into English. It sounded like “oodle-oops,” or maybe “hula hoops.” What the hell, I wondered, was an oodle-oop?

It seemed that Boyd had invented them. They were not oodle-oops, but OODA Loops. I was fascinated, and asked what an oodle-oop—OODA Loop, I mean—might be.

It turned out to mean Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action. If a pilot could go through these steps faster than his opponent, he would win. Nobody, the Reformers believed, had ever thought of this before.

Any obvious idea can be made more mysterious if expressed in bulleted form:

  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one’s current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one’s current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions

De-bureaucratrzed, this amounts to “Pay attention and think fast.” I learned it playing fast-break basketball in high school. It gets better, though. The obvious can be made yet more astonishing by using a diagram:

To be yet more learned and impressive, if that were possible, one spoke of “getting inside the enemy´s OODA Loop.” It sounds like something that would worry anyone with a teen-age daughter. Actually it meant “keeping the initiative,” but this wasn´t adequately grand. It´s pick-up basketball: Keep the other guy so busy trying to figure out what you are going to do to him that he doesn´t have time to figure out what to do to you.

So much for military reform, at least by these guys.

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