In Pursuit of Clarity: the Intellect and Intellectual Integrity of Pierre Sprey

Pierre Sprey. Image courtesy of Roger Thompson.

My friend Pierre Sprey, who died suddenly on August 4, is being justly commemorated for his leading role in forcing the US air force, much against its will, to produce two weapons, the F-16 fighter and A-10 ground support plane, that perform their missions effectively, and at low cost.  These were indeed remarkable victories over an entrenched bureaucracy more intent on protecting its own perceived interests rather than defending the country. More importantly, they served to illustrate Pierre’s extraordinary strengths in intellect and character, which he applied to far more than the design of weapons.

His creative brilliance is certainly evident in aspects both large and small of those aircraft, not only in the overall concept of “brilliant simplicity” but in such apparently mundane features such as his insistence on the separation of the A-10’s engines from the combustible fuel tank (contrary to traditional, deeply unsafe, design practice) or his suggestion of a under-fuselage air intake on the F-16, which cut the plane’s weight and boosted its maneuverability. His battles to develop and produce the planes, and, in the case of the A-10, save it from the air force’s untiring efforts to consign the entire force to the boneyard, were powered by his ironclad intellectual honesty.   He believed fiercely that form must follow function; any attempts to deviate from that course, such as by freighting a machine with unnecessary and inevitably costly electronic features, was dismissed as rank intellectual corruption.  He deemed such dishonesty unforgiveable. Anyone, however formerly close, whom he detected trimming their beliefs in furtherance of career or other earthly rewards were deemed “sellouts”–his harshest criticism, and rarely if ever regained his trust.

That theme ran through his work, from weapons design to the music recording he turned to after dropping out of defense consulting (because, he told me at the time, the Pentagon was now “completely overrun with crooks and thieves.”)  Just as he ensured that A-10 pilots should be able to fly low in safety and observe potential targets with their own eyes, rather than relying on some complex electronic interface, so he crafted a recorder that captured live music with extraordinary fidelity by dispensing with multi-track mixing boards and other artificial barriers to truth in recorded sound. (He was certainly no Luddite; his creations, whether airplanes or the wires he developed for enhancing audio device quality, were masterpieces of technological ingenuity.)

Pierre’s work enabling pilots to see targets clearly, and listeners to hear music the way it actually sounds, was a reflection of his belief in the vital importance of perceiving the world as it really is.  This was reflected in his rigorously empirical approach to any topic of interest, whether it be the contribution of strategic bombing to defeating Nazi Germany (non-existent) to the price of oil (highly manipulated and unrelated to supply) to the best Eritrean restaurant in the greater DC area (Café Aurora, in Alexandria.)  His energy and skill in research was extraordinary–in a a phone conversation two days before he died, I made a reference to the antecedents of an obscure Chinese fighter plane of which he professed ignorance. Twenty minutes later he called back with a comprehensive account of the plane’s design history and aerodynamic qualities (or lack thereof.)

As a brilliant mathematician (accepted at Yale at the age of fourteen) he was outraged by the innumeracy prevailing among today’s press and policymakers.  In one of his last emails to me he derided current hysteria over the Delta Variant, pointing out that even according to official figures, the Delta death rate was one fourteenth of the level during the original Covid wave in April 2020, a point studiously ignored in official commentary.

Pierre’s clarity of understanding was absolutely matched in exposition.  A brilliant teacher, he could explain a complex technological process so clearly that no audience could fail to feel informed and enlightened (or enraged, in the case of military bureaucrats and hirelings who saw their facile arguments rebutted and demolished.)  As my daughter once remarked after a conversation with Pierre “he makes you feel smarter just by listening to him.”  He did not hoard this gift, as countless journalists and anyone else who evinced an intelligence interest have discovered, for he was extraordinarily generous with his time, as well as unstinting in praise for any ensuing work product.  I lost count of the times when he would advise on the topic for an article, supply the salient data, correct errors, and then call with ringing applause and commendation for the published article.

Pierre will be irreplaceable as a friend, and no less so as a voice of wisdom, truth and integrity in a world he strove to make better.

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino. His latest book is  The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine. (Verso.)