The A-10 Warthog has until recently been a mainstay of the US Air Force. Photo: US Air Force

Pierre Spey, one of the most interesting and controversial aircraft designers and a Pentagon nemesis, died this week at the age of 83. Spey was responsible for the design of the A-10 close support fighter and in part for the F-16 design. 

And he was a longtime opponent of the super-expensive stealthy F-35.

Spey was born in 1937 in Nice, France.  His parents, both Jewish, escaped the coming holocaust and made their way to the United States. Spey was admitted to Yale University at the age of 14 and later studied at Cornell University. He studied aeronautical engineering, mathematical statistics and operations research. 

Starting out at Grumman Aircraft (where the A-10 was eventually built), he went to the Pentagon where he was part of what became known as the “Fighter Mafia” – teaming with John Boyd and Thomas P Christie. Robert Coram in his book on John Boyd has a good deal to say about Spey and Christie.

After his Pentagon career, Spey became a record producer focused on jazz. Some of his recordings were highly praised. The equipment for the recording studio was put together by Spey in his home in suburban Maryland, near Washington DC.  

His recording with the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir singing Walk With Me appears in Kanye West’s 2004 hit Jesus Walks.

Spey was a highly successful Air Force and Pentagon infighter. Through his influence, the A-10 was chosen over the objections of Air Force brass and Pentagon leaders.

The A-10 is a unique close air support and ground attack aircraft that the US Air Force has been trying to get rid of for decades. Unfortunately for the Air Force, the A-10 has performed brilliantly in the two Iraq wars and in Afghanistan.  

The A-10 was called the Warthog because from the outside it is an ugly aircraft. But the Warthog designation was also a term of affection from the pilots who flew the aircraft.

A 30mm cannon from an A-10 sits to the side as an aircraft mechanic works an A-10 Thunderbolt Warthog on December 20, 2017, at Hill Air Force base in Ogden, Utah. Photo: AFP / George Frey / Getty Images

Tom Christie said: “He was one of the most detested people by the United States Air Force because he was challenging a lot of sacred programs and strategies.”

The A-10 was originally designed to support NATO if there was a Soviet invasion of Europe. It was designed to knock out Russian armor, radars and command centers and support allied troops against Warsaw Pact forces.

The A-10 features a very unique design. It has two engines, mounted high on the upper rear which are designed to reduce the heat signature that infrared anti-aircraft missiles seek. It has self-sealing foamed fuel tanks that can take ground fire hits and not explode or burn and a titanium cocoon protecting the pilot.

The aircraft design allows the fighter to operate at low speeds and to be maneuverable. It carries a powerful GAU-8, 30mm hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-style autocannon that can fire 3,900 rounds per minute. 

It also carries Maverick (AGM-65) air-to-ground TV-guided missiles and bombs. In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, A-10s destroyed more than 900 Iraqi tanks, 2,000 other military vehicles and 1,200 artillery pieces.

On a single day, A-10s destroyed 65 Iraqi, mainly Russian-built heavy battle tanks (T-62s and T-72s).

In Afghanistan, the A-10 was primarily engaged in providing close air support against the Taliban and protecting US and Afghan troops. Most of the time this involved ferreting out Taliban fighters ensconced in mountainous areas surrounding friendly forces rather than performing an anti-armor role. Again the A-10 was tremendously successful.

Even so, the Air Force continues to try and rid itself of the A-10 and replace it with the F-35, something Spey believed was a mistake. The F-35 in a close support role, if it ever was used that way, would be extremely vulnerable to ground fire and in that scenario its stealth capability would be of no value. 

Spey considered stealth as a scam because he said Russian radars (which China has copied) using longer-wave frequencies would be able to detect the F-35 and shoot them down. Spey also criticized the F-35 because it is not maneuverable, can’t fly slow and only carries a small weapons load, mostly because the F-35 to retain its stealthiness must carry weapons internally. 

A US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning not-so-stealth fighter. Photo: AFP / Yichuan Cao / NurPhoto

Moreover, the original F-35 did not have a gun system – it was put on the aircraft later after much criticism. Of course, the F-35 carries a smaller ammunition load and smaller caliber than the A-10, has a less effective range and isn’t of any use in ground support if the aircraft has to stay far from the conflicted area for safety reasons.

The F-35 is extremely expensive to operate and hard to maintain. The A-10 is far cheaper to operate and easy to maintain even at remote locations (something that can’t be done with the F-35). 

Acquisition costs also are radically different. In current-day dollars, the A-10 would cost US$9.3 million (it is no longer manufactured and the plant where it was made is closed). By contrast, the F-35 costs in excess of $78 million and its sustainment costs could bleed the Air Force budget.

In Spey’s view, the F-35 is not a combat survivable aircraft because it can’t really provide close support and because its lack of maneuverability means it wouldn’t survive in any close encounter with enemy aircraft.

By contrast, the A-10 was built to take hits and keep flying. A number of A-10s were shot up in the Iraqi conflicts, but were able to return to base.

In the latest Biden-backed budget, 43 A-10s will be scrapped if the budget is approved by Congress.

American soldiers stand in front of an A-10 Thunderbolt at Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey. Photo: AFP / Ozge Elif Kizil / Anadolu Agency

A fitting tribute to Spey would be to give the 43 A-10s the Pentagon wants to scrap to Taiwan. 

The A-10 would be a superb aircraft to destroy any attempt by China to launch an invasion of Taiwan, since the aircraft could slice up Chinese landing craft and destroy any armor that the Chinese might be able to get onto the island in an attack. 

Supported by upgraded and new F-16s that can challenge China’s top combat aircraft, Taiwan would have a fighting chance to stop even a powerful China from a successful attack.