It took me some time to find out that Pierre Sprey, the legendary face of the “Pentagon Reformers”, passed away. RIP, and all sympathies with his friends and family. His life as a person (and music producer) has little to do with his life as an analyst. But it’s Sprey as an analyst that the military internet knows, and that legacy is, sadly, mostly for the worse.
As an analyst, Sprey symbolized a lot of trends, most of them negative. What he was most known for was his faulting any aircraft beyond a YF-16 as being slow, clunky, expensive, and that wouldn’t even work. One can take a sympathetic view and point out that it made much more sense in the 1960s with bulkier, objectively less effective early sensors. Once solid state electronics developed, one could have one’s cake and eat it too. Sprey still kept designing an air force that would make perfect sense-for a third world country in 1962.
Sprey also had a McNamara Pentagon (of which he was a member)-style fascination with numbers for their own sake. Thus the F-86 was good because of its (inaccurate) 10-1 kill ratio, as opposed to the lower rates of Vietnam-era fighters. SAMs were overhyped just because they didn’t shoot down that many aircraft directly. While some of it was grounded, it felt like spherical cow analysis from someone who didn’t understand context.
To me the extra-sad part was his decline. This can happen to people in all circumstances. Joe Morgan the baseball player was an ahead-of-his time figure whose style was a sabermetrician’s dream. Joe Morgan the baseball analyst was a traditionalist cliche-spouter who became a sabermetrician’s nightmare. Bill Belichick was one of the more sensible coaches when it came to going on fourth down. Now he’s one of the most timid. Tom Clancy dropped significantly in quality. You get the idea.
What wasn’t Sprey’s fault was that he ended up in a media environment where he had no incentive to be accurate and every one to continue his initial statements. What was his fault is that he embraced it. He could just keep citing his (somewhat exaggerated) credentials and repeating all of his soundbites. He could get sloppy to the point where he couldn’t even display the right system (using a Stryker MGS to symbolize a 175mm M107). He could sound credible to people who had entirely reasonable suspicions about military equipment-and not enough knowledge to counter him. But to people who did have enough knowledge, he became a mildly annoying irrelevance.
In fact, I could probably argue that Sprey hurt his own cause. Because too many people with legitimate concerns about legitimate technological overreach cited or sided with him, it likely harmed their own credibility. What I’ve read is that there was a surprising amount of common ground between the Pentagon Reformers and those actually in the military who wanted “good enough now” solutions and a focus on human improvement over trying to tech past problems. They squandered it by going completely outside.
Sprey should have been remembered as a man who did some defense commentary a long time ago and spent the rest of his life as an eccentric music producer. Instead he willingly became, in the words of military Youtuber “Lazerpig“, a “rent a critic”.