Introducing John Boyd
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Introducing John Boyd


Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz form the bedrock for understanding and making strategy. Their ideas are indispensable. Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett are the saltwater theorists. They take strategy to sea. The late U.S. Air Force colonel JohnBoyd (1927-1997) is the Mad Hatter of strategic theorists. And therefore Colonel Boyd ranks among the Naval Diplomat’s faves! One imagines, and hopes, his ghost approves of the U.S. Navy’s belated effort to reacquaint itself with the rigors of sea control. This is an important undertaking. The United States must ready itself to fight for what it has long taken for granted. If its effort falters, it must forego certain options or abandon important regions.

Firming up U.S. command of the seas and skies has both material and human dimensions. The sea service needs to field new weaponry to keep pace with an increasingly challenging strategic environment. It must also abolish twenty years of ingrained assumptions, doing away with the notion that command of the maritime commons belongs to American seafarers as though by right. Boyd wasn’t a sea-power theorist. He was a fighter pilot first and foremost, but through self-education he established himself as perhaps history’s premier thinker about how individuals and institutions create and respond to change. That’s why an airman can help the U.S. Navy regain its nautical mastery.

Boyd gleaned his first insights into strategy from personal experience and observation as a tactical pilot. Although he missed the air war over Korea, he wondered how U.S. pilots achieved such a lopsided (10:1) kill ratio in air-to-air combat while flying aircraft with performance characteristics comparable to those of enemy warplanes. His answer was stunningly simple: the bubble canopies mounted on F-86 Sabres afforded U.S. pilots better visibility than their opponents flying Soviet-built MiGs. Simple as that. They could see around better and thus manage engagements better. Small design features had a major impact on the outcome of battle.

He also wondered why he was able to defeat every adversary he faced in mock combat, and why he could do so within forty seconds. (His record earned him the, ah, unfortunate nickname “Forty-Second Boyd.”) Boyd came to believe he always won because he could spring unexpected changes on his adversaries. Sudden, swift, radical maneuvers forced them to respond to what he did. In effect the deft pilot could alter the character of an engagement, hitting enemies with “fast transients” with which they couldn’t keep up. Nor was this dynamic confined to aerial battle. Boyd generalized his thesis after schooling himself in the classics of strategy. He maintained that the combatant who adapts to change—or, better yet, imposes change to which an opponent must conform—amasses an almost insuperable edge in combat. Hardware that facilitates adaptation and fast transients only sharpens that edge.

He thus put substance into one of Sun Tzu’s aphorisms, namely that the successful general dictates the nature of battlefield combat, compelling his enemies to fight on his ground and his terms. In competitive interactions, then, the competitor who observes the surroundings accurately and quickly, orients to changes observed in those surroundings, decides on a course of action, and acts decisively enjoys a commanding advantage over a less flexible adversary. Observe, orient, decide, act: that’s Boyd’s famous “OODA loop.” Compressing the decision cycle lets a nimble combatant outthink, bewilder, and outmaneuver his opponent. A disoriented adversary is an easy nut to crack.

One reason John Boyd is more obscure than the other greats of strategic theory is that he wrote little. He left behind no Art of War to codify his ideas. Students of strategy discover his legacy mainly from PDFs of grainy viewgraphs taken from the briefings he delivered to many audiences during his lifetime—U.S. Marines, who pride themselves on flexibility, were among his most fervent admirers—complemented by a smattering of biographies and scholarlyanalyses of his ideas. That’s not the sort of thing you can easily build curriculum around. Nevertheless, diligent leaders can harness his ideas to keep strategy, organizational practices, and habits of mind aligned with changing surroundings.

Institutions have their own OODA loops, and most are set in their ways. Successful organizations in particular find it hard to react to fast transients. Which brings us back to the U.S. Navy’s effort to reinvent itself for more competitive realities, especially in Asia. Tomorrow we’ll investigate why the world’s predominant navy must rediscover its culture of maritime command, and how a fighter pilot can help.

August 30, 2012 at 04:12

Boydis now standard fare in the JPME I distance learning class of the Air War and Staff College.  Good stuff.

August 29, 2012 at 10:56

Leonard R.'s comment adds nothing to the discussion except an inflammatory (and defamatory) remark and an excellent illustration of a pot calling a kettle black. Well done, Leonard.  One does have to wonder why the icons of strategy are called into the article when it is a discussion of tactics.  There is no doubt that OODA is an excellent way to describe a cognitive process that is ideal for commanders, but it is hardly grand strategy.  

August 28, 2012 at 21:53

Boyd's achievements were notable not in tactical air, though he was famously skilled in dispatching the best and the brightest out there in Nevada.  Boyd changed warfare.  Gulf War I was not designed, fellas, by Norman Schwarzkopf.

August 28, 2012 at 21:51

Olds was a great leader.  Many men were.  Of what relevance is that, asking about Boyd and linking him with Olds?  It's like asking why Boyd didn't command the Entebbe raid, or something.  
IMO, ignoring Boyd's influence on GWI strategy and planning is to overlook the depth and power of his thinking.  I would note as well his intractable integrity in such matters as building the F-16 and revealing the corruption in the '80s Army APC procurement.  

August 28, 2012 at 18:21

Boyd did lead to one of the funnier street names on a military base.  Just off the circle surrounding Air University and the Lemay Doctrine Center at Maxwell AFB, AL is–you guessed it–OODA Loop.

August 28, 2012 at 02:02

He was part of the "Fighter Mafia" at the USAF which is credited with the development of F-15, F-16, F-18 and also A-10s…

August 28, 2012 at 02:00

During the early 1960s, Boyd, together with Thomas Christie, a civilian mathematician, created the Energy-Maneuverability, or E-M, theory of aerial combat. A legendary maverickby reputation, Boyd was said to have stolen the computer time to do the millions of calculations necessary to prove the theory [3] , but it became the world standard for the design of fighter planes. At a time when the Air Force's FX project (subsequently the F-15) was foundering, Boyd's deployment orders to Vietnam were canceled and he was brought to the Pentagon to re-do the trade-off studies according to E-M. His work helped save the project from being a costly dud, even though its final product was larger and heavier than he desired. However, cancellation of that tour in Vietnam meant that Boyd would be one of the most important air-to-air combat strategists with no combat kills. He had only flown a few missions in the last months of the Korean War (1950 – 1953), and all of them as a wingman.

August 27, 2012 at 23:07

Compressing one's OODA loop is only half of Boyd's methodology. The other half was disruption of the adversary's OODA loop through deception and other means. This second aspect is unfortunately overlooked by many.

H. Lucien Gauthier III
August 27, 2012 at 21:25

Boyd did leave behind a significant legacy.  Net Centric Wafare/Operations (and all of C4ISR), Maneuver Warfare, and almost every slogan used for 90s and 00s era transformation was the result of Boydian thinking.  The problem is that the easy stuff was all that was grasped upon by the military and contractors a like.  
Look at LCS.  LCS should be exactly what (I would assume) Boyd would agree with needing at sea.  However, we got wrapped around the axle in regards to speed, mission modules and other hardware aboard.  LCS is not what SEA FIGHTER was proposed to be.  
What's additionally interesting is that while many of the more basic concepts espoused by Boyd were ran with by the Navy, one key basic concept was not:  People being the most important asset.  Along with speed, C4ISR and adapability in LCS, the Navy radically reduce the manning of the ship.  This dispite Boyd saying "People, ideas, hardware; in that order." 
I completely concur that there is much the Navy has to learn from Boyd.  But, there are even more misconceptions that must be unlearned by the Navy first.  I had a picture of Boyd next to my desk aboard the SAN ANTONIO.  Every officer that would ask about him had never heard of him, those who were post war-college would usually say something like 'oh, the OODA-loop guy' and I would facepalm constantly.  
Lastly, I think John Robb at Global Gurillias has done some excellent work building on Boyd's thinking. As well, there is a meeting (conference really isn't the right word) every year at Quantico called <a href="">Boyd and Beyond</a>that is free, and informs me more than any other conference I go to.  

Dan Pendleton
August 27, 2012 at 21:05

I've read of the Blond Knight. Maj. Hartmann was a believer in using the least ammunition possible to score a kill by getting in as close as possible to the enemy that he couldn't possibly miss. Frugal and efficient with his Me-109's guns, he was able to score more kills per engagement than any other German pilot in the dreaded Eastern Front. The guy was a true legend.

Lynn Wheeler
August 27, 2012 at 20:58

One of Boyd's biographies mentioned he did tour commanding spook base; his "Organic Design for Command & Control" makes an oblique reference to NKP (pg.28: My use of "legal eagle" and comptroller at NKP).  He would claim that early on he said it wouldn't work so the assignment may have been punishment. NKP description (gone 404, but lives on at wayback machine): biography also mentions spook base as a $2.5B windfall for IBM (some $17+B inflation adjusted).
Its been nearly 30yrs since the Time article and little seems to have changed, recent item in Spinney's blog:

Lynn Wheeler
August 27, 2012 at 15:28

Time article behind paywall, but mostly lives free at the wayback machine (except pg.8; SECDEF blamed Boyd for the article and tried to have him banned from the pentagon for life),9171,953733,00.html
tribute to Boyd (from USNI proceedings) … also comments that things hadn't improved since the Time article (also at wayback machine)

August 27, 2012 at 14:00

Well, not to discredit Colonel Boyd or anything, but there is another fighter pilot who used an almost similar strategem in handling adversaries and eventually enabled him to rise to be the top gun of them all: the ace of aces Erich "The Blond Knight" Hartmann.
Hartmann used his self-developed tactic which is the "See-Decide-Attack-Break" sequence. Spot the enemy, decide if he can be attacked and surprised, attack him, and break away immediately after striking. With this method, Hartmann became the foremost fighter pilot in World War II with a registered kill count of 352 aircraft.

The Colonel may have independently struck upon this strategy, but way back in World War II, Erich Hartmann was already applying those tactics and steadily racking up his tally. Fortunately or rather unfortunately, 10 Americans also fell victim to this tried and true method of the ace of aces.

Leonard R.
August 27, 2012 at 10:30

The Americans who could most benefit from the OODA loop might be in the Department of State. 
They have their own OODA method. It seems to be, "Overlook, Obfuscate, Delay and Abandon". 

August 27, 2012 at 06:04

very interesting – looking forward to the next installment

Dan Pendleton
August 27, 2012 at 00:10

Robin Olds was a fighter pilot & ace in WW2, Korea & Vietnam as I recall. What happend to John Boyd? Did he quit the air force prior to the Vietnam War?

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