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Analysis

POGO Remembers Pierre Sprey, Pentagon Provocateur and Mentor

(Photo: Joe Newman / Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Generals feared Pierre Sprey. The more corporate-minded mistakenly viewed him as an enemy, when in fact there was no more effective ally for the warfighters. But fear him they did — which provoked some to extraordinary lengths to malign and discredit him. Fortunately, Pierre Sprey proved to be made of sterner stuff than them. He persevered for 60 years, dogged in his efforts to make sure the troops serving in the U.S. military had the right weapons to meet the battlefield challenges they faced.

Every time a pilot takes off in an F-16 or a soldier is saved when an A-10 sweeps an enemy position with a burst of 30mm rounds, Pierre Sprey’s contributions to our national defense are on display. The world lost this towering man when he died peacefully in his Maryland home on August 4, 2021.

Pierre earned the terror he inspired in the Pentagon brass through his hard work, piercing intellect, and unmatched integrity.

He led a life full of adventures and accomplishments, the complete listing of which would require an entire book to detail in full. He was born in France in 1937, and he fled to the United States with his family to escape the advancing Nazis. His abilities as a mathematician prompted Yale to accept him at the age of 14. There, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in French literature. He went on to earn a master’s degree in operations research and mathematical statistics from Cornell. In between, he worked through the ranks at Grumman, where he started out pounding rivets and eventually became a lead statistics analyst.

Pierre earned the terror he inspired in the Pentagon brass through his hard work, piercing intellect, and unmatched integrity.

At Grumman, his abilities gained the attention of then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Valtz, who in 1966 brought Pierre into the Pentagon’s systems analysis office as one of Robert McNamara’s “Whiz Kids.” In this role, Pierre earned the perpetual enmity of the Air Force when he conducted a year-long analysis of its plans to fight a Soviet attack through Western Europe. He found that the Air Force’s strategy to use tactical aircraft to bomb widely dispersed and camouflaged targets far behind the front lines, much like the fruitless strategic bombing missions of World War II, would do little to blunt a determined Soviet advance. His study concluded that the Air Force should instead build a fleet of specialized attack aircraft to work closely with NATO ground forces and concentrate all available combat power on the exposed enemy at the end of its logistics train.

His conclusions flew in the face of decades of airpower theory and threatened the very identity of the Air Force. Because the first goal of any bureaucracy is self-preservation, Air Force leaders did all they could to discredit the study and Pierre. The Air Force brass made one of their greatest mistakes in this effort when they sent their leading aerial tactics expert, then-Major John Boyd, to speak with Pierre to explain why he was wrong.

Their plan backfired. Boyd and Sprey quickly discovered they were kindred spirits and formed a partnership whose influence has now outlasted both of them. The two men, along with friends like Tom Christie, Chuck Spinney, Everest Riccioni, Chuck Myers, and Harry Hillaker, became the “Fighter Mafia.” Their work, often behind the scenes and against the official positions of the Air Force leadership, produced the F-16 and F-18 aircraft, which still form the backbone of the United States fighter fleets.

Left to right: Chuck Myers, Pierre Sprey, Chuck Spinney, Everest Riccioni, Tom Christie, and Winslow Wheeler.
(Photo courtesy of James Stevenson.)

Pierre’s study led to another consequential partnership in the Pentagon. A staff officer working for the Air Force chief of staff reached out to Pierre to help design the aircraft to fill the close air support role the study called for. Colonel Avery Kay had been tasked with the program, but he found little support through the official procurement channels. Kay and Sprey became the leaders of the A-X program that ultimately produced the A-10.

One challenge Pierre and the other Pentagon reformers had difficulty overcoming was directing public attention to the issues they raised. They expected journalists to be crusaders exposing wasteful defense spending and ineffective weapons programs. In the age of the big three news networks and two major national newspapers, they ultimately decided they needed another outlet.

In 1981, the reformers teamed up with the journalist Dina Rasor to form the Project on Military Procurement to expose “waste, fraud, and fat” in the defense budget. According to Rasor, Pierre played a significant role in the organization’s early success.

“He was willing to take a big chance on a woman who had no military background but was willing to learn, and I understood the media and knew how they could get some traction. Pierre could explain to me how something like the Maverick missile worked, and I could then go out and tell the true story,” Rasor said.

His influence helped to set the Project on Military Procurement — now the Project On Government Oversight — apart from other national security related organizations. Rather than fighting mainly for straight cuts in the Pentagon budget, he helped show how doing so could improve military effectiveness and safety by producing simpler, and therefore superior, weapons.

Pierre eventually grew increasingly frustrated with the machinations of the Pentagon and retired from his consultancy work in 1986 to pursue his passion for music. He started his music business, Mapleshade, in 1986 to produce recordings and some of the finest audio equipment in the world.

But he never stopped caring about the troops and Pentagon missteps. Right up until his final hours, he freely gave of his time to anyone willing to carry on the fight he began, as I was privileged to discover.

The first time I met him, it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to keep from exclaiming, “Holy shit! You’re Pierre Sprey!” This happened in Washington on a cold and rainy Thursday afternoon in January 2015. Adrenaline already coursed through my veins because I was walking into my first job interview in more than a decade, having spent the intervening years cloistered in the Marine Corps. When I received the invitation to interview for a position with the Project On Government Oversight, I had only been told the time and location. No one had said anything to me that a figure legendary in American defense circles would be there to see if I really did know my stuff.

A requirement of the job posting I had responded to two weeks earlier said the candidate must have “a working knowledge of ‘military reform’ as explained by John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, and Chuck Spinney.” Like all Marine officers, I first heard the name of John Boyd at the Basic School. I later read Robert Coram’s biography of Colonel Boyd and learned about how he struck fear in the hearts of generals and policymakers with his friends and collaborators, including Pierre Sprey. Fascinated by their antics, I spent a considerable amount of time studying all I could find about their work. I became an admirer.

Pierre Sprey and Dan Grazier
(Photo: Dan Grazier / POGO)

So my surprise to suddenly find myself standing inside a small conference room in front of Pierre that winter day was real. Another of Boyd’s friends, Chuck Spinney, and the author and movie producer Andrew Cockburn were also in the room along with the POGO staff, setting the scene for the most interesting job interview I ever experienced. The formal part, with the sort of questions usually asked in that situation, lasted for perhaps 20 minutes. We then spent the better part of two hours trading stories.

They wanted to learn about my experiences in the Marine Corps and how that sparked my interest in military reform. Pierre and Chuck amused us with tales of their work inside the Pentagon, their collaboration with John Boyd, and the ways they were able to make things happen by leveraging their understanding of the Pentagon’s bureaucracy.

That day began one of most interesting and consequential friendships I will ever have. Pierre and I worked together regularly for the last six years. Hardly a week went by when we did not speak on the phone about either a current project of mine or one of our joint ventures. Often our conversations could range across subjects. One minute we would be talking about the shortcomings of the F-35, the next minute we would be talking about the importance of keeping your speaker wires off of the carpet and attaching them directly to the terminals (the sound quality will increase 5%, he told me).

While most people know him for his military work and his expertise about airplanes, Pierre Sprey was a true polymath. He once spent an hour on the phone telling me about the work of the 19th century French political cartoonist Honoré Daumier. We arrived at that conversational tangent after a discussion of Otto von Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian War. Most of our conversations would unfold in such a manner and rarely did they end before I had added at least one new book to my Amazon wish list. If I live to be 100, I will probably still be reading Pierre-recommended titles.

Few things appeared to give Pierre more joy in life than a good caper. Whenever he got together with his friends in the Fort Myer’s officers’ club, they would often retell stories of their adventures and roar with laughter as if they had never heard the stories before.

I had the opportunity to team up with Pierre to pull off one of his most highly visible escapades. When Colonel Kay, the Air Force father of the A-10, died in late 2015, his friends and family decided a fitting tribute would be to have A-10s fly over his Arlington National Cemetery burial service. Pierre found out what it would take to make that happen and I arranged for the publicity.

A-10 Thunderbolt II
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

This happened at a time when the Air Force leadership were mounting their strongest efforts yet to retire the entire A-10 program. Colonel Kay’s friends worried that if the Air Force brass knew anyone had specifically requested an A-10 flyover, they would deny it rather than give the A-10 a moment in the spotlight. So Pierre had Colonel Kay’s family request a flyover, an honor he earned due to his rank, and Air Force public affairs approved. Leaders at the Pentagon didn’t know that an A-10 squadron was in on the plan. When the flyover tasking order went out to units, the A-10 squadron immediately answered the call and put on a memorable display over Washington. As the caisson bearing Colonel Kay’s casket approached the burial site, all of us in attendance looked to the south over the Pentagon and saw four A-10s passing directly over the building. As they passed over the cemetery, one pulled up in the missing man formation honoring the Air Force officer who had cared enough about the troops on the ground to risk his career to create an aircraft program built specifically to protect them.

Looking back on the moment today, the flyover served as an excellent tribute to Pierre in life. He watched with justifiable pride as those four magnificent aircraft buzzed the building he fought with so much over the years.

Pierre never stopped in his quest to ensure the troops were well served by the Pentagon, and the American people had the most effective military force possible. My colleague Mandy Smithberger and I met with him the day before he died to talk about some upcoming projects. I spent about two hours with him that evening, talking about several issues that remain unresolved today. Until the very end, he maintained the boundless enthusiasm about the subjects dearest to him.

He attracted his fair share of detractors over the years. Truth-tellers always do. Members in good standing with the military-industrial-Congressional complex fear his influence to this very day, as evidenced by the obvious and easily disprovable lies on his Wikipedia entry about the significance of his contributions to the A-10 and the F-16.

I don’t know how history will ultimately remember Pierre Sprey. He deserves an honest treatment that accurately describes his contributions while focusing on his towering intellect, his unbreakable good character, and his general good humor.

Pierre can rest peacefully knowing that he inspired a new generation of people in government, the military, and in civil society who will carry on the good work he began.

What I do know for certain is that my life will be a lot less interesting now that my friend Pierre is gone. Never again will I answer the phone and hear an enthusiastic, “Hey Dan!” to be followed by a discussion of airplanes, history, art, and anything else that piqued his interest.

Pierre can rest peacefully knowing that he inspired a new generation of people in government, the military, and in civil society who will carry on the good work he began. And those people who rightly feared Pierre Sprey should not rest too comfortably now that he is gone. His spirit survives in his friends, and it’s our job to ensure the Pentagon does what is right, which would be fitting tribute — equivalent to an A-10 flyover.